In a bold and innovative move, the University of North Dakota has 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 Dr. 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 Grand Forks County Sheriff Robert Rost, and community members.
“It’s formed like the Institutional Review Board (IRB) that is charged with protection of human subjects in research,” Johnson said. “We’ve got people on the UAS committee who bring the view of people who have nothing to do with UAS, nothing to do with law enforcement, nothing to do with aviation in their day-to-day lives. They’re just regular people and this will help the committee achieve its mission” of dealing with UAS-related privacy and related issues.
“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 identify necessarily 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.”
“We’ve really set the whole thing up modeled on the IRB and on the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and other similar committees, all of which are mandated by federal law,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Dr. Barry Milavetz, professor of molecular biology and associate vice president for research compliance and development, agree that privacy is a top concern for UAS research. Milavetz 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 that 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.
Such debates aren’t news in American scientific history.
“We’re at the point now with UAS that we were in the 1970s with recombinant DNA technology (rDNA),” said Milavetz, an active scientist himself who worked with that technology. Quoting a 1975 report by North Dakota State University researcher Philip McClean, Milavetz noted that it took several major conferences regarding that technology to iron out appropriate safeguards, especially with respect to the containment of the organisms being produced by rDNA technology.
Like today’s UAS questions, the main issue is social responsibility. A related question, also being addressed by UND’s new UAS committee, is the relationship between scientific freedom of inquiry and protection of society’s interest.
UND has been involved in UAS training and research for a number of years, and awards the what is still the only fully accredited degree in this discipline. As a leader in UAS research, UND has been working with a number of public and private groups to study specific applications for UASs in the national air space.
Recently, Milavetz noted, it has become clear that some of these applications may raise 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 the US Congress is set to take up the issue of privacy with respect to UAS usage.
As a leader in UAS applications the University has held meetings to develop a plan to address the ethical issues related to UAS research associated with UND. The committee outlined in the University president’s charter is the University’s response.
It is based upon similar committees presently functioning under Federal regulations for human subject research, biological materials research, animal studies, and usage of recombinant DNA and is based to a large extent on community values.
UAS research background
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Center of Excellence performs research and development on UAS technologies, applications and human factors issues and encourages commercialization of new UAS-related products and services. The UAS Center of Excellence also focuses on education and training for UAS integration into the national airspace system.
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 will review and approve all research using unmanned aircraft systems conducted by any members 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 in determining whether a research project may be approved.
The charter also says that the committee—which reports to the Vice President for Research and Economic Development—will determine whether a proposed research project can be approved as described, needs modification to be approved, or will be denied.
The UND UAS Research Compliance Committee consists of six appointees representing the University, three appointees representing emergency responders, three appointees representing local government, and three appointees representing the community at large. The appointees representing the University may include but is not limited to faculty from Aviation/Aerospace Sciences, Criminal Justice, Philosophy/Religion, and Sociology.
In addition, the committee will have four non-voting members including the Associate Vice President for Research and Economic Development, a coordinator from Research Development and Compliance, a representative from the University Police, and a representative from the office of General Counsel. Committee members are appointed for renewable three-year terms.
“We need the perspectives of all the folks involved with this committee,” Johnson said. “Of course all the people on the committee are very thoughtful folks. So just like the IRB, you bring the community standards to bear. I think it’s going to be a very useful exercise.”
“It may be that sometime in the future we won’t need a committee like this one, but maybe we’ll need it even more,” Johnson said. “We’re going to ask every single project that’s doing research related to UAS needs to fill out a research protocol form and file it with the committee. Most of those UAS research projects will be exempt from review because if you’re working, for example, on electronics that eventually will go into a UAS, that project isn’t going to impact anyone’s privacy. But then we will know everything that’s going on with respect to UAS-related research.”
“As a leader in UAS research nationally, it behooves UND to be a leader on this front, as well,” Johnson said.
Public acceptance of UAS is, in large part, going to depend on resolving, or dealing with, these privacy and related) issues in a way that the public finds acceptable.
“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,” Johnson said.
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