Study Finds that Drones Near Roadways at Any Height Between 20 and 60 Feet are Equally Distracting to Drivers, Both Visually and Cognitively.

Driving Simulator and Follow-Up Survey Reveal Lessons Learned from Flying Unmanned Aerial Roadways Near Roadways.

Date Posted

The Influence of Unmanned Aerial Systems on Driving Performance

Summary Information

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones, have become increasingly popular with a variety of roadway use cases, including traffic data collection, infrastructure inspection, roadway marking data collection, and more, due to being low-cost and less labor-intensive alternatives to traditional techniques. However, in order to collect much of this data with a desired degree of accuracy, UAS must be flown near moving vehicles, pedestrians, and/or bicyclists, posing a potential risk of driver distractions on the road. This study involved conducting a driving simulation in Amherst, MA, tracking drivers’ eye movements for any signs of distractions while driving in the presence of a nearby UAS. The driving simulation included 28 participants and a variety of scenarios. Specifically, the impact of drone height and the presence of drone operators on driver performance was evaluated.

  • Beware that driver distraction risks associated with flying UAS near roadways are both visual and cognitive. In this study, participants who had seen a drone while driving remembered these situations and spent time thinking about the drone while they were driving. This proves that distraction due to drones may not be strictly visual, but also cognitive.
  • Recognize the possibility that UAS flying on the roadside could be equally distracting regardless of its height to some degree. In this study, participants were just as likely to be visually distracted to the same degree at any drone height. Thus, drones on the roadside at any height between 20 and 60 feet can be equally distracting.
  • Ensure proper UAS pilot/crew experience to cause minimal distraction to drivers on the roadway. According to the survey results obtained in this study, there was a general agreement on the drone pilots having to be responsible and experienced to ensure safety and minimize unnecessary driver distractions.
  • Reduce driver distraction risks by flying with a remote pilot. In this study, situations with the presence of both the drone and pilot along the roadside were more visually distracting than the drone-only situations for participants. The median average glance length is 0.43 seconds in scenarios when only a drone was presented while the median average glance length is 0.58 seconds in scenarios when both a drone and pilots were presented.
  • Avoid UAS usage near roadways unless warranted by policy to steer clear of any distraction and safety risks. Given the high amount of visual distraction due to drones and their pilots, as observed from the results of this study, it is recommended that appropriate policy actions be taken to limit the situations in which drones are allowed to be flown in the vicinity of roadways.

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