The University of North Dakota, already among the nation's top schools in developing unmanned aircraft, is taking steps to lead the way in studying the ethics of using drones.
A research committee at the school will create guidelines to handle the legal and ethical pitfalls that may arise as the drones come into increasing domestic use, particularly in law enforcement.
The federal government already flies drones, based in Grand Forks, to monitor the Canada-U.S. border. The North Dakota Air National Guard also flies a fleet of drones from the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Next spring, the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department may be using them for such things as monitoring the scenes of traffic accidents or hazardous spills.
The UND committee may issue preliminary guidelines by January, said Barry Milavetz, a professor of molecular biology and associate vice president for research development and compliance. Milavetz proposed the committee, arguing that privacy is a top concern for research on drones.
"I think it allows us to further our policy of having transparency in our (unmanned aircraft) 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."
Once the school establishes its standards, the sheriff's department will begin using two small drones — one helicopter, one airplane — that it is leasing from the university. Sheriff Bob Rost said they could come in handy in a variety of situations, such as searching for lost children or criminal pursuits in grain fields.
"We knew that before we used any of this technology, we needed policies, procedures and guidelines," Rost said. "My main goal with all of this is to assure the public that we're not going to misuse that technology."
Congress has ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate drones into the U.S. airspace system by 2015. At least three bills have already been introduced in Congress to address concerns over privacy, security and other issues.