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Summit panelists debate legal, ethical use of UAS

Questions surrounding the legal, moral and ethical use of unmanned aircraft systems continue to multiply as businesses and individuals discover more uses for these devices.

There are still gray areas, but a four-person panel attempted to flesh out the black and white Thursday at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit in Grand Forks.

The issue of privacy invasion by UAS is one of the most contested across the country. Some of the most common fears involve using the aircraft to secretly video people in their home or backyards.

When it comes to people invading each other’s privacy with UAS, courts can provide recourse.

“If we’re talking about private actors, most states have tort laws that address these issues whether that be invasion of privacy, trespass or nuisance, there are remedies for private actors who have been aggrieved by private actors,” said Elizabeth Skarin, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

‘Lost in the mix’

The potential misuse of the aircraft and the data they’re capable of collecting has led many to criticize the UAS industry.

Proponents say that disapproval too often falls on the technology instead of the behavior of individuals.

“We focus so much on the technology that the end product of a potential violation of someone’s privacy gets lost in the mix,” Grand Forks Police Department Capt. Mark Nelson said.

Nelson and New Mexico State University professor Doug Marshall likened the use of unmanned aircraft to capture photos to using a video camera or cell phone.

“Cameras have been around for a longtime and they’ve been used appropriately and inappropriately for over 100 years,” Marshall said. “You could argue reasonably that UAS is just another camera.”

For residents whose privacy has been violated, it’s likely they could not take matters into their own hands by destroying the UAS without facing some sort of consequence.

In North Dakota, damaging the aircraft in such a scenario could result in a charge of criminal mischief, which includes destruction of property, according to Nelson.

The matter also could be settled in civil court.

Law enforcement

A recent scientific survey of 647 North Dakotans found they weren’t worry about privacy as they were about police and businesses using unmanned aircraft.

Law enforcement using UAS to detect crime and illegal hunting or fishing, issue traffic violations and monitoring major traffic event saw higher opposition than other potential applications.

Much of the worry lies with what data is collected, who has access to it and how it is stored, according to UND professor Thomasine Heitkamp.

Already, several states have passed or are considering legislation regulating or banning certain types of UAS use for government entities and citizens.

“There’s been a smattering of legislation in various states with regards to UAS,” Skarin said. “Typically the law has been a little slow to catch up with the technology.”

Many of the laws and bills target police use of these devices. Some laws require police to obtain warrants for flying the aircraft while others put limits on evidence collection and retention.