Expanded Drone Testing to Take Off

Jan 5, 2018

In this 2016 still image from video, a test drone making a UPS delivery lands on Children's Island in Marblehead, Mass. UPS partnered with robot-maker CyPhy Works to fly the drone on a programmed route for three miles over the Atlantic Ocean to make the delivery.
Credit (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi)

Expanded drone testing will soon take off in handful of localities around the country. It’s part of the plan to integrate the unpiloted aircraft into U.S. airspace for jobs like package delivery, emergency operations and more.

President Trump issued an executive memorandum in October, authorizing the real-world testing program as a way to speed up the process and create new jobs. But concerns about widespread use of drones in public and private space remain.   

The expanded drone testing pilot program, set to roll out this spring, will for the first time allow the aircraft to carry out test flights over people, at night, and to operate out of sight of their human controllers. The flights will be allowed in 5 designated areas only, yet to be chosen.

To some, the reality of drones actually outside hovering outside the window seems to have come out of nowhere.  But Mark Blanks with the Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech says the industry believe's it's taken too long. “The drone industry would say that things have not been moving quick enough. This is going very slowly. It’s taken 10 years.  We thought it would take just 2 or 3 years."

Blanks oversees drone testing at Virginia Tech.  It’s one of just six sites in the country chosen to study how to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace.  For the last five years, the testing has been done under carefully controlled conditions, away from population centers, but that’s about to change. “I like to tell people that drones will directly interface with them in ways that normal aviation never has, never will," Blanks said. "So we’re getting to a point now where we have to address the social concerns of how they’re going to interact with you as an individual.”

Some say exploration of those concerns should have begun years ago. “When the FAA chose Virginia Tech to be the 6th site for studying drones, they had a research project that didn’t didn’t mention ethics," according to Philip Olson, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. "There was no sociological component to it. It was devoid of humanistic and sociological inquiries. It was just considered a technical issue."

That led Olson and a colleague to bring their concern to the college administration, which, he explained, ultimately decided to fund research into the ethics of drones.

The study comprised people from several departments and colleges at Virginia Tech. They ran several focus groups which included experts who had experience with drones, as well as well as people who did not. “We were in these groups, these 5 focus groups and we weren’t even asking questions about gender or race but all the focus groups and all the conversations were just full of assumptions about race and gender. It was constantly present but not addressed,” Olson said.

Those issues came up so often that researchers ultimately based part of the title of their paper that came out of the focus groups on a phrase they heard over and over again – “Man in the Loop.” It was the default way to discuss what role a human might play in a drone’s flight. And it raised issues about who is in control of drones and who might feel controlled by them. Which populations might benefit and which might suffer under them.

“So it was interesting that the people who are working on the drones aren’t aware of the ways in which assumptions about race and gender are informing their understanding of this technology and how it will be deployed,” Olson said.

And that was eye opening for focus group participant, Engineering professor Craig Woolsey, who works closely with drones.  So much so that he decided to teach a course on drone ethics with a colleague who specializes in the field. It was a whole new teaching experience for him “You certainly don’t teach it in the conventional way that I teach aircraft  flight mechanics," Woolsey noted.  "You pose a question and you sort of engage the students and encourage them to ask lots of different questions and you listen.”

The class on drone ethics debuted last spring and Woolsey says it filled up fast.  

The paper that came out of the Focus Groups on Drone ethics, written by Philip Olson and Christine Labuski is called “There’s Always a [White] Man in the Loop”: The Gendered and Racialized Politics of Civilian Drones. It will be published in the journal Social Studies of Science.

The deadline for localities to submit their proposals to become new drone test sites was Jan 4, 2018.  The F.A.A. expects to make its selections and have the program underway sometime this spring.