Autonomous systems industry needs to gain trust from general public

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Nearly 100 educators, engineers, and employees involved with autonomous systems like drones or self-driving cars were meeting at Virginia Tech Sunday and Monday for a conference.

As they work to improve equipment of the future, there is one big obstacle they need to tackle.

According to some of the experts and industry members at the conference, trust of the systems by the general public is critical.

These people have been developing how this equipment works, but now they need to convince people it's safe.

Robert McAden is the President and CEO of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council.

He explained, "It's not an answer of just building the technology, if people are afraid to use it or if people won't use it, you're really not getting anywhere."

There are several reasons people may not trust this technology.

Airgility, Inc. CEO Pramod Raheja said, "One of them is the trust in the legalities, like what happens if a drone hits my house or what happens if two drones are delivering pizzas and something happens and there's an accident and one of the drones falls on the street and hurts somebody."

Liberty University’s Director of UAS Operations Jonathan Washburn added, "The fears tend to stem from what they see in the media, they'll see a lot of reports of how they're used overseas in wartime environments."

In fact, some who work with these on a daily basis say they're not completely convinced.

Andrew Schultz is a Technical Sales Representative at Aeroprobe, but admits he's fairly new to the industry.

He said, "I don't know that I would trust a UAV to, like, transport my child's transplant heart, at this point. But would I trust an automated Uber to bring me a pizza? Absolutely!"

So how can these people convince every day folks, with no drone and self-driving car experience, that they're safe?

Ryan Williams, a Virginia Tech Assistant Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, explained, "What we have to do is demonstrate a real system that is fielded with real humans in the loop that actually works predictably, reliably, and over and over and over."

The Director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech Mark Blanks added, "Society needs to perceive the value, they need experience with it, and they need to know that when that thing flies over it's not going to come out of the sky, and that's only going to come with some time and some very careful deliberate testing and data driven approaches."

The conference wraps up at the Inn at Virginia Tech Tuesday.

After that, the people involved will work to develop steps in building trust in a limited environment, like our hometowns, before expanding.

That means people will be seeing more and more of these technologies in Southwest Virginia, and drones delivering to back yards soon.

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