In the first effort of its kind in the nation, a University of North Dakota research committee will examine the ethics of using unmanned aircraft.
The University of North Dakota has one of the nation's most comprehensive research programs to develop unmanned aerial technology.
University researchers are working with the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department to determine how small unmanned aircraft could help law enforcement personnel, efforts that could be challenged in court by groups concerned about police violations of privacy.
But other kinds of aerial surveillance also could pose problems, said Phyllis Johnson, the university's vice president for research and economic development. For example, what happens if an unmanned aircraft designed to monitor farm crops, sees something else?
"Maybe that camera picks up a video of two people out in the middle of a pasture doing something where they thought they weren't going to be observed," Johnson said. "What do you do with that data? Who has access to it? How long do you keep it? How secure do you keep it?"
To study such potential conflicts, a committee of university experts, law enforcement officials and Grand Forks, N.D., residents, will review how unmanned aircraft are used and consider legal and ethical pitfalls.
Johnson said the new review committee will create guidelines to answer those questions while the Federal Aviation Administration develops rules on the technology.
The committee, patterned after commonly used medical research review panels, will review all unmanned aircraft research projects once a year and consider issues of privacy and ethics focusing primarily on law enforcement's use of unmanned aircraft.
Industry groups are also creating guidelines designed to protect privacy, and the International Chiefs of Police recently adopted guidelines for the use of unmanned aircraft.
Law enforcement agencies are under great pressure to prove they will use aerial surveillance responsibly, said Don Shinnamon, a retired police chief from Florida who authored those guidelines.
"An agency that moves forward without taking advantage of those recommendations does so at their own peril, because you're going to get resistance from you community, your governing body and others that could very well derail the program before it even starts," he said.
Unmanned aircraft are receiving a growing amount of attention by those concerned about privacy and one legal expert suggests they are the subject of too much concern, given the rapid development of surveillance robots.
"The idea that we're fixated on that fact that these things are flying is a little myopic," said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
But Calo said unmanned aircraft capture the public attention like no other surveillance technology.
"Drones are potentially the straw that breaks the camel's back," he said. "That's the moment at which Americans look up at the sky and say, 'I get it, I get it; there's too much surveillance technology without limits.' I think it's because of the fact Americans can form a mental model of this activity in a way they haven't been able to before."
Calo said the oversight committee established at the University of North Dakota is a great idea as a university is the place to have such ethics debates. But he said it's critical those ideas translate into policy and regulations that can be enforced.
The United States dominates computer and internet business because the nation's laws kept up with advancing technology, Calo argues.
He said lawmakers must now protect privacy without grounding the unmanned aircraft industry.
"We need to think about these things and get them right," Calo said. "Because if we don't we'll all just be buying these things from other countries and they'll reap the benefits of this potentially transformative technology."
The FAA is required to develop rules for unmanned aircraft use by 2015.
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