A University of Nevada, Las Vegas study has found that the design of a drone doesn’t actually impact people’s perceptions of drones. The study asked 647 people in the U.S. to rate their perception of drones that they saw in pictures, manipulated across four factors – color, propeller blades, legs and propeller safety guards. (Video)

What the researchers found was “completely surprising.”

“People’s perception is that a drone is a drone is a drone,” said Joel Lieberman, professor and chair of the UNLV criminal Justice Department and co-author on the study. “It doesn’t matter so much how it looks” — which runs counter to a common design assumption that appearance can dramatically affect how consumers feel about a product.

Lieberman got the idea for the study partially after watching the Audi commercial where hundreds of ominous black drones with eight blades descend upon a parking lot, a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

“UAVs in that case look pretty scary,” he said. “If it’s really simple with a bright friendly color, would people be more receptive to it?”

Study participants were asked to self-asses their moods when looking at drones of various colors (white, black and orange) or with various numbers of blades (four, six, or eight).

Researchers went in with the assumption that a white drone with rounded edges, such as a DJI Phantom, would be received better than a drone with multiple blades and sharp, pointy legs. The wildly popular DJI drones are expected to exceed $1 billion in sales this year, but it may not be the drone’s approachable looks that are driving sales, the study indicates.

The study found that people ranked their mood with the same score for each photo, whether the drone in the photo resembled a spindly, black spider or a soft, white cloud.

More important than aesthetic to shaping drone acceptance is function, the study found. Participants were more inclined to rate their acceptance of drones higher or lower based on what type of function the drone had, rather than what it looked like.

But that’s not to say drone makers aren’t meticulous about the effort they put into designing drones and, as some point out, form and function go hand in hand.

“We don’t want our vehicles to look like camera drones that can spy or invade privacy,” said Marc Shillum, an Advisory Board Member and Design Chair at Matternet, a company that builds delivery drones with a focus on medical supplies. “This is essential medical, diagnostic samples we’re delivering.”

The design of Matternet’s drone is intended to convey that it’s going somewhere important, particularly in conflict zones that need medical supplies quickly.

“As designers, we’re doing whatever we can to create safe passage to let this drone pass in the same way you would let a Red Cross van pass in an area of conflict,” he said.

Packages sit in the center of Matternet’s drones, surrounded by “a ring of protection,” he says. “The same way a baby might be in a womb is the same way the payload would be in the center.”

Despite his study’s findings, Lieberman said he believes design is important in indicating function – for example, coloring a drone red and white to indicate medical response as Matternet has, or giving a drone a yellow shade to indicate it is an emergency vehicle, or green to indicate it is an environment vehicle.

Making drones and drone delivery more palatable to the public is a key issue for drone makers today, and all of the businesses that rely on drones.

“Right now there is a lot of resistance to package delivery because the public just doesn’t see the value in it,” Lieberman said. “But there is a lot of support for UAVs in search and rescue, agriculture use, geological issues.”

As for drone makers, Lieberman said they should care less about what the drone looks like and more about what it does.

“You can add safeguards such as extra blades without the concern that it will create a more menacing looking drone,” he said. “In terms of the trade off between function or safety vs. appearance, it’s not worth sacrificing the safety.”

Article and image via Market Watch