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Inside Science and Technology 

Academics Tackle Domestic Drone Ethics 

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By Dan Parsons 

When revolutionary new technologies like unmanned aircraft become commercially available, the tendency is to focus on all their wondrous potential uses instead of the ethical and public safety concerns the proliferation of such technologies create.

Whether human organ transplant or cloning, emerging technologies typically receive critical, multi-disciplinary scrutiny and oversight during development through academic study.

At the University of North Dakota, remotely piloted aircraft are receiving the same rigorous vetting from the UAS Research Compliance Committee, which is overseeing the Grand Forks County sheriff’s department’s use of unmanned aircraft in law enforcement and public safety activities, said member Barry Milavetz, associate vice president for research and economic development at UND.

“With any research on emerging technologies, the federal government wants to know that we are meeting certain criteria,” he said. “Those are transparency, risk versus benefit analysis and adherence to local community standards.”

Animal and genetic research are held to the same standards, he said. Aside from Milavetz, an organic chemist who works with recombinant DNA, the committee has in its ranks a historian, a professor of religion and philosophy, a rancher and a professor of social work.

William Semke, associate professor of engineering at UND, said some of the most powerful multi-spectral sensors can read footprints in a field long after the person who made them has fled. That sensitivity can be built into a camera that weighs less than a pound and be flown on small, homemade unmanned aircraft. That incredible capability must be reconciled with public concerns over privacy before the Federal Aviation Administration allows UAS in the national airspace in 2015.

Nationwide, there are a dozen law enforcement agencies using unmanned aircraft to carry out their duties. All have internal policies on the appropriate use of the machines. None, other than the Grand Forks sheriff’s department, has such comprehensive third-party oversight of their activities.

Alan Frazier — an assistant professor of aviation at UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, UAS pilot and Grand Forks deputy sheriff — oversees the department’s UAS activities. The effort is a joint collaboration between the sheriff’s office, the university and two unmanned aircraft manufacturers: Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment and Draganfly Innovations, based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The sheriff’s department and the city police force operate four small UAS models, including the AeroVironment Qube quadcopter and the hand-launched Raven, commonly used by the Army and Marine Corps.

The goal of the department’s research is to develop a concept of operations for using small UAS in law enforcement and public safety, Frazier said.

“We want to determine how effective these are as law enforcement tools,” Frazier said. “What can we do and what can we not do?”

Grand Forks city police and county deputies are preapproved by the committee to use flying robots for five missions: searches for criminal suspects, searches for lost or missing persons, disaster assessment, crime scene and traffic accident photography and monitoring traffic conditions at special events. The committee must review and approve other uses of the technology by the sheriff’s department or city police.

“There are no federal laws that mandate we do this,” Milavetz said. The FAA is charged with regulating and maintaining the safety of U.S. skies. Its integration plan does not include creation of an ethical code for UAS operation.

“We believe the federal government eventually will conclude this is the best way” to regulate the uses of unmanned aircraft for commercial and law-enforcement purposes, he said.

While the public is primarily concerned with individual privacy, data management is the real issue, Milavetz said. Devising reasonable limitations on how data is collected, who is collecting it and how it is stored is the best protection of privacy, he said.

“The police flying over your house while tracking a suspect and not keeping any of the data is different from someone flying a [UAV] over and taking a picture and posting it on Facebook,” he said.

The department was declared mission-ready in March. In May, it flew its first mission searching for a drowning victim in Minto, N.D. The sheriff’s department has flown seven missions in total, including a search for an injured person who walked away from a traffic accident, photography of erosion control measures in a nearby state park, a sexual assault scene and monitoring a train-vehicle traffic accident.

So far, 27 law enforcement and fire department sensor system operators have been trained. Sensor operators and their pilot partners have completed more than 200 simulated law enforcement missions. The FAA last year awarded the sheriff’s department a 16-county license to fly UAS in the national airspace, which is the largest authorization in the United States.

“It has been a learning experience,” Frazier said. “Some of the things we thought we could do, we couldn’t do that well. Some things we never thought about or imagined we were able to do very well. You can sit there and hypothesize, but until you get out there and do it, you just don’t know what works and what doesn’t.”

When monitoring traffic, the committee authorized filming only vehicles and only with real-time video to identify bottlenecks leaving a concert venue. In most circumstances, they are not allowed to save data or imagery, especially if residences or people are in the frame, Frazier said.

“There’s really no reason to do that,” he said. “If we are flying a UAV to help with traffic coming out of a Britney Spears concert, we are interested in capturing video of vehicles. … We would certainly delete the footage immediately if we somehow took photos of an individual or a residence.”

Thomasine Highcamp, who chairs the UAS compliance committee, said the specific approach Grand Forks has taken to its use of UAVs in law enforcement likely would not work everywhere. The list of approved uses for the technology are place-specific, she said, adding that the social and political differences are great enough within North Dakota alone that the city’s rules likely wouldn’t fly in communities farther west.

“So far we’ve approved five protocols in which the UAVs can be used,” she said. “But just because this works here doesn’t mean that it will work elsewhere. It depends on the community. That’s the community standards piece of the puzzle.”
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