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Getting Ahead of the UAS “Game”

UAS | UND Discovery

Alan Frazier (right), assistant professor of aviation, demonstrates a camera-equipped UAS vehicle to Barry Milavetz, associate vice president for research, and Grand Forks County Sheriff Robert Rost.

In a bold and innovative move, the University of North Dakota formed the country’s first Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Research Compliance Committee that aims to get ahead of federal plans to regulate UAS in terms of privacy concerns and other social issues.

“This is purely voluntary,” said Phyllis Johnson, UND vice president for research and economic development.  “That’s what’s so innovative about it.  We’ve got multiple stakeholders involved: first responders; city, county and state government — including a state’s attorney, which I think is pretty cool; people from aerospace; and other faculty with backgrounds in law, philosophy, ethics and history, so they bring a variety of perspectives.”

The new committee also comprises local and regional law enforcement, including an appointee from the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Office, and other community members.

“We needed a group of people to deal with making sure that we don’t violate federal or state laws,” said Grand Forks County Sheriff Robert Rost.  “These aircraft can be used for a lot more than law enforcement, so we’ve got a good cross section of people who will assure that everything in UAS operations in this region is fair and equitable.

“People elsewhere are going to be looking at what we’re doing with this committee.  We’re going to set an example to be followed.”

The broadly based panel is modeled on UND’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) that is charged with protection of human subjects in research and on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and other similar committees, all of which are mandated by federal law, Johnson said.

“One of the big concerns that IRBs look at with human studies is invasion of privacy and security of private data,” Johnson said.  “These are similar to the issues that we’re dealing with here with UAS.  Very often with a law enforcement application, you cannot necessarily identify the individuals and get their consent beforehand (before a UAS flies over them).  That does not mean that we should not take some time to talk about this.”

Barry Milavetz, a UND professor of  biochemistry and molecular biology and associate vice president for research development and compliance, agreed that privacy is a top concern for UAS research.  And that’s why he proposed the UAS committee idea last summer.

“Maybe there are other important ethical issues that would arise with respect to UAS, but right now, the privacy issue is in the forefront,” Johnson said.

UAS payloads now often include various kinds of cameras.  They are being used by law enforcement and others for surveillance, among many other purposes — raising invasion of privacy issues and resulting in a spate of news media coverage.

In a recent widely quoted report on UAS and privacy issues, the American Civil Liberties Union underscores those concerns about the unregulated use of UAS by law enforcement and other government agencies.

Sheriff Rost appreciates those concerns, but also cites a number of public safety or high-risk situations where UAS would come in handy.

“For sure, we’ve got issues that come up, such as a child lost in the middle of a grain field,” said Rost, who’s been in law enforcement since 1970 and with the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department since 1979.

“And we’ve got hazmat situations, for example where a train carrying anhydrous ammonia derails, just like what happened in Minot (N.D.) in 2002, or if a hazmat truck gets involved in an accident,” Rost said.  “These are all examples of situations where you can’t necessarily send people right in.  A UAS can be used in these events to safely survey the situation, define where the hazard is, and decide where you can safely come in from.  These kinds of situations are my main interest in making use of UAS technology.”

Another big issue is traffic accidents.

“You can use a UAS to fly over the accident scene to grid it out, instead of the laborious process of using tape measures on the ground — handy technology,” Rost said.

Still, Milavetz said, it has become clear that some of these new UAS applications are raising ethical issues, particularly with respect to privacy.  As a consequence of the proposed uses at the national level, various groups have issued position statements, and Congress also is set to take up the issue of privacy with respect to UAS usage.

UND has developed a charter to address the ethical issues related to UAS research at UND.  One outcome from this plan is the formation of the new UAS committee.

According to the charter:

  • The UAS Research Compliance Committee will be a standing committee of the Division of Research and Economic Development.
  • The charter will be reviewed annually by the vice president for research and economic development.
  • The committee reviews and approves all research using UAS conducted by any member of the University, including faculty, staff, and students.
  • No research will be undertaken without prior approval of the committee.
  • The committee will consider the ethical consequences of the proposed research and apply community standards to determine whether a research project may be approved, modified, or denied.

The committee comprises six appointees representing the University, three representing emergency responders, three from local government, and three from the community at large.

In addition, the committee has four nonvoting members from UND: the associate vice president for research and economic development, a coordinator from Research Development and Compliance, and representatives from Public Safety/University Police and the General Counsel’s office.  Committee members are appointed for renewable three-year terms.

UND has been involved in UAS training and research for a number of years through its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence and other centers across campus.  And the University awards what is still the only fully accredited degree in this discipline.

“As a leader in UAS research nationally, it behooves UND to be a leader on this front as well,” Johnson said about the new committee’s role.  “I would rather that we do this — establish this committee — than just have the federal government lay down a set of rules that can never cover every possible situation.”

Juan Miguel Pedraza