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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications, Published November 21 2012

UND drone program blazes trail

GRAND FORKS – By next spring, the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department could be using unmanned aircraft to probe scenes of traffic accidents or hazardous spills.

But they’re not likely to be getting a bird’s-eye view of spring fling festivities at University Park.

The University of North Dakota’s UAS Research Compliance Committee, the first of its kind in the nation, is sorting through those and other ethical and privacy issues to develop UAS compliance standards, a document that could become a national model.

A preliminary set of guidelines may be approved by January, according to Barry Milavetz, UND professor of molecular biology and associate vice president for research development and compliance. He proposed the committee, arguing that privacy is a top concern for unmanned aerial systems research.

“I think it allows us to further our policy of having transparency in our UAS program,” he said. “We think this will allow us to tailor our policies, not only to be compliant with search and seizure laws but also to be compliant with community standards here in Grand Forks.”

The committee, which has been meeting about every three weeks since August, has set three main tasks:

UAS, commonly known as drone aircraft, mainly have supported military and security operations overseas.

In the United States, their use currently is limited to law enforcement activities, search and rescue operations, forensic photography, border and port security, scientific research and environmental monitoring.

Congress has mandated the FAA to integrate UAS into the national airspace system by 2015. However, at least three bills have been introduced in Congress to address concerns over privacy, security and other issues. UAS technology already has a large presence in the Red River Valley and the Northern Plains.

UND, with the nation’s first accredited four-year UAS degree program, is home to a UAS Center of Excellence.

Grand Forks Air Force Base is home to a fleet of UAS, namely the Global Hawk and Predator drones, which are flown remotely by the North Dakota Air National Guard, based in Fargo.

And U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses unmanned vehicles, based in Grand Forks, to monitor the U.S.-Canada border.

In addition, North Dakota is one of several states vying to become a UAS airspace testing ground.

Once UND’s compliance standards are established, the sheriff’s department will begin using two small unmanned aircraft – a helicopter and an airplane – it is leasing from UND to provide aerial photographs of accident scenes, hazardous material spills and other incidents.

The helicopter is about 3 feet by 3 feet, while the plane has a wingspan of about 5 feet. Each weighs less than 5 pounds, according to Al Frazier, UND assistant professor of aviation and a part-time deputy sheriff who is leading the sheriff’s department’s program.

“We knew that before we used any of this technology, we needed policies, procedures and guidelines,” Sheriff Bob Rost said. “My main goal with all of this is to assure the public that we’re not going to misuse that technology.”

Rost cites several potential public safety situations where UAS would come in handy, including searches for lost children or criminal pursuits in grain fields.

He also lists hazardous material spills, such as truck rollovers or a 2002 train derailment in Minot involving anhydrous ammonia.

“These are all examples of situations where you can’t necessarily send people right in,” he said of the hazardous spills. “A UAS can be used in these events to safely survey the situation, where you can 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.”

Milavetz suggested the committee follow a compliance model used by the federally regulated Institutional Review Board, which is charged with protection of human subjects in research.

The local UAS committee currently is reviewing a couple of proposals for general use.

“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.”

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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