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€150,000 for research into ethical and legal aspects of drones ‘University of Twente research should constitute a prelude to a national centre of expertise’

Drones are a new force to be reckoned with in our society, and things are just getting off the ground. These devices can offer enormous benefits. Just think of fire fighting, crowd control or nature management. However, there is still much uncertainty regarding the ethical and legal aspects of the use of drones. Who, for example, is ultimately responsible if a drone wrongly concludes that a fire has been fully extinguished? What about privacy concerns? And in which situations can drones be deployed safely? Scientists working at the CTIT and IGS research institutes at the University of Twente have received a grant of €150,000 from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) to develop a ‘tool’ to link ethical, social and legal aspects to the development, testing and deployment of drones. The researchers hope that this project will form the prelude to a national centre of expertise devoted to this fascinating field. ‘All the relevant expertise is present right here in Twente.’ 

Throughout society, and in Twente in particular, drones are the subject of tremendous technological advances.

Drones can serve to improve people’s safety and security in all sorts of ways, but they are not without their risks. Not only designers and developers, but also policy makers and insurance companies therefore have a clear need for unambiguous ethical and legal frameworks. This is why UT scientists have launched an interdisciplinary research project to develop a tool that incorporates ethical, social and legal aspects in the early stages of drone development, testing and deployment. Depending on the outcome of the project, the tool may take the form of a workshop, a roadmap or some other kind of instrument. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) has provided a grant of €150,000 for the project, which will run for one year. 

National centre of expertise

According to Irna van der Molen, coordinator of the Centre for Risk Management, Safety and Security at the University of Twente and the project’s leader, this is a relatively small-scale project, but it could very well be the prelude to a national centre of expertise in this area. “The University of Twente is the ideal place for developing this kind of expertise on drones, because we are uniquely able to combine technological prowess with the societal impact of technology. Moreover, Twente can boast of a wealth of expertise in the field of robotics and drones.”

According to UT professor and lead applicant of the project, Peter-Paul Verbeek, it is crucial to include ethical and social factors at an early stage in the development of drones. ‘By doing so you’ll engender greater support and you’ll be more likely to make the right decisions during the design process. In addition, this approach keeps the momentum going in technological innovations, helping to overcome obstacles in the early stages. 

DesignLab

Prof. Verbeek requested the grant on behalf of the University of Twente’s DesignLab of which he is a co-founder. Students, researchers and companies from a variety of fields and academic disciplines work together in this cutting-edge lab to devise solutions to issues that go beyond the confines of mere nuts-and-bolts technology. Prof Verbeek explains: ‘This project fits in perfectly with the philosophy behind DesignLab. Right here in Twente we have a platform where technological developments are linked to the social sciences, and where some of the world’s sharpest minds can anticipate the societal impact of the latest advances.’ 

Research

The interdisciplinary research project, entitled ‘Responsible Design of Drones and Drone Services: towards an ethical and juridical tool for drone design and risk assessment’, is being run by the University of Twente’s own Irna van der Molen, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Michiel Heldeweg and Lesley Broos. The research is being carried out in close cooperation with two companies, UAV International and Clear Flight Solutions. A large number of regional and national parties are also participating in the project, including Twente Safety & Security, the National Police, the National Fire Brigade, Ambulance Care in the Netherlands, Twente Safety Campus, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, and The Hague Security Delta.