In a timely and innovative move, the University of North Dakota (UND)—offering the nation's first and only fully accredited undergraduate degree in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations—has formed the nation's first UAS Research Compliance Committee in anticipation of federal plans to regulate related privacy issues.
The committee will meet monthly to accomplish the following tasks:
- Establish and enforce a University-wide review of all UAS research protocols and perform ongoing review and monitoring
- Consider the ethical consequences of proposed UAS research and apply community standards in determining whether a project is approved, modified or rejected
- Leverage UND's national leadership in UAS privacy-related issues and assist regulatory agencies with formulating publicly acceptable solutions
UAS, also commonly known as drone aircraft, have mainly supported military and security operations overseas. In the U.S., their use is currently limited to law enforcement activities, search and rescue operations, forensic photography, border and port security, scientific research and environmental monitoring. However, there is a concerted effort by civilian operators to expand the use of UAS for commercial photography, aerial mapping, advertising, crop monitoring, communications, broadcasting and other applications.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—mandated by Congress to integrate UAS into the national airspace system by September 2015—has come under increased public pressure to address escalating privacy and national security issues associated with the technology's expanded use. In addition, in its September 2012 eport, the Government Accountability Office warns that the mandate fails to address concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming or spoofing.
"Currently, at least three related bills have been introduced in Congress and at least one other is in draft form," said UND Vice President of Research and Economic Development Phyllis Johnson, PhD. "They could not only pose serious restrictions on UAS operations, but also impede research and development on new applications."
Such debates aren't new in American scientific history.
"We're at the point now with UAS that we experienced in the 1970s when the emergence of recombinant DNA technology resulted in more than two years of debate before government safeguards requiring local review of projects were implemented," said Johnson. "We want to offer an alternative to the legislative restrictions on UAS use that are being proposed to deal with privacy concerns. Of all the ethical and operational issues related to UAS, privacy is at the forefront in the public mind."
UND's 15-member UAS Research and Compliance Committee comprises multiple stakeholders, including first responders; city, county and state government officials; local community and business representatives; and UND faculty with backgrounds in aerospace, law, philosophy, ethics and history.
Largely based on community values, it is modeled after the federally regulated Institutional Review Board (IRB) that is charged with protection of human subjects in research.