The ethics of the drone industry

Annual Olafson Ethics Symposium brings UAS thought leaders to campus to discuss state of drones and policy

Lisa Ellman, executive director for the Commercial Drone Alliance, took the stage at the 15th Annual Olafson Ethics Symposium to discuss the current state of drones and law in the United States. Ellman’s experience as a legal expert around UAS integration positions her as a thought leader in the unmanned space. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

To start her presentation at the 15th Annual Olafson Ethics Symposium, Lisa Ellman told her audience about a cutting-edge UAS firm: Dronership.

Dronership’s drones would be flying around the symposium’s venue, the Chester Fritz Auditorium, providing engaging camera angles for the symposium’s livestream, Ellman said. Furthermore, tickets for various events could be delivered by drone; thanks to facial recognition technology, getting the tickets would not require an ID.

The unmanned craft could take photos of the audience, text those images to audience members’ phones, and instantly post images and videos to social media such as Instagram or TikTok.

“If I lose my friends, I can summon a friendly Dronership drone, and it will scan a crowd to help me find them,” Ellman continued. “That drone even keeps all of our biometric data on file forever to make sure we’re easy to find in the future.”

Then Ellman paused. “Who’s in favor of this idea?” she asked.

You could have heard a quadcopter-connector pin drop in the auditorium.

Ellman quickly allayed concerns, saying Dronership was a made-up company. But because similar questions about UAS technology are being asked worldwide, the topic was the theme of this year’s symposium, which explored “Ethics in the UAS Industry.”

After all, many of “Dronership’s” applications already are possible through available technology, Ellman noted.

Lisa Ellman

And the silent, yet telling reaction when she described the mythical company is why ethics is generating debate throughout the drone industry.

Ellman, an attorney and executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, used her time on stage at Wednesday night’s event to say that technology – plus thoughtful policymaking – can solve many of the ethical concerns that exist within the unmanned field.

Since the late 2000’s, Ellman has worked in the White House and Department of Justice and at the highest levels of the UAS private sector to help drones safely and reliably operate in the national airspace. She’s regarded as an authority on UAS law and chairs the UAS practice at law firm Hogan Lovells in Washington, where she is a partner.

The Olafson Ethics Symposium, in its 15 years on campus, has drawn experts from an array of industries to offer their perspective on ethics: the moral principles governing behavior and action. The symposium exists through the lasting support of alumnus Bob Olafson with additional support from SEI Investments, and is hosted by UND’s Nistler College of Business & Public Administration.

Preceding Ellman’s talk, a panel of experts tackled a variety of questions around ethics and drone technology. The panel featured Michael Toscano, former president and CEO for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International; Air Force Maj. Gen. James Poss (ret.), CEO of intelligence and UAS firm ISR Ideas; Air Force Lt. Gen. Vern Findley (ret.), president of VMFindley Consulting LLC; Erin Roesler, UAS Standards and Policy Manager for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site; and Mike Johnson, executive vice president of SkySkopes.

Among the topics addressed by panelists were the changes drones and autonomous systems will bring to society’s expectations of privacy, surveillance, travel and the economy. The discussion also focused on public perceptions and how industry stakeholders can set ethical standards that shape the future.

During the Obama administration, Lisa Ellman was involved with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and eventually headed up an interagency effort that was tasked with integrating UAS in the national airspace. In the private sector, her focus remains on “polivation:” policymaking that promotes innovation. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.


At first, Ellman found the topic of the symposium to be abstract, she said. She wasn’t sure what she would talk about at UND, even though she immediately recognized the University for its leadership in matters of UAS education and research.

“Then I started to think about it, and I realized that all of the things I do day-to-day have ethical dimensions,” Ellman told UND Today. “In thinking about the work I’m doing around privacy, safety, security and property rights — all of the policy issues the drone industry is grappling with — I realized there’s actually a lot to talk about.”

Ellman’s background in law concerned emerging technologies policy – in other words, policies that help integrate emerging technologies into existing environments. During the Obama administration, she spent part of her time working in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and eventually headed up an interagency effort that was tasked with integrating UAS in the national airspace.

The substance of her work is different in the private sector, she said. But the concepts are still the same.

Her main idea, as she described during her symposium keynote, is “polivation:” policymaking that promotes innovation in ways that win the public’s trust.

“From inside government, I saw how often the two parties — policymakers and innovators — don’t talk to each other,” Ellman said. “Policymakers are not familiar with the technology for which they’re trying to craft rules, and innovators then don’t feel like they want to engage with legislators.”

Much of Ellman’s work in UAS is bringing those parties together, helping everyone move forward to advance unmanned technologies. To that end, Ellman helped found the Commercial Drone Alliance, the organization that she now directs.

Ellman characterized the unmanned industry as one that wants to be regulated and have basic guardrails established as drones become common in society. During her talk, she offered examples of technologies that can help ensure the ethical use of drones. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Solutions in tech

Though Ellman’s description of the mythical “Dronership” struck a tone of unease, she quickly resolved the discord. She did this by noting that technology, engineering and ethics all go hand-in-hand when it comes to harnessing the potential of drones.

“There is an understanding that this isn’t the ‘Wild West’ – we need to do things in an organized way,” Ellman said.

“The reality is that a lot of industries don’t want to be regulated, but the drone industry wants to be regulated. We want rules, and we recognize that there need to be ‘rules of the road.’”

For example, remote identification technologies can assuage the concerns of anonymity in drone operations, Ellman said. Having a “virtual license plate” on UAS can keep piloting transparent.

Geofencing technology can set approved flight paths for UAS, which can help address sensitivities around potential violations of property and airspace. Unmanned traffic management systems, furthermore, can map “highways in the sky” along which drones can fly safely and efficiently, without risk of conflict.

As for data such as images and video recordings taken from UAVs, processes and systems can be developed to regulate how long data is kept, and how it is used and stored.

“From an industry perspective, we need to educate the American people about these technologies in order to foster the demand for them,” Ellman said to her audience. “The right policies will enable the ‘good’ and prevent the ‘bad.’”

It’s the policies that are up for debate, as society works to determine the guardrails regulating UAS. Ellman hoped her lecture helps spark a national conversation around an important issue.

Applicable ethics

Bob Olafson, for whom the annual symposium is named, said he was inspired by UND Today’s coverage of UAS research developments when he suggested bringing UAS into a broader discussion of ethics.

“With a new industry like this, how do you get the rules defined?” he asked. “How do you get the values specified that then form the basis for rules, regulations and policies? It’s different from hearing from someone who ran a finance company, for example, because that industry has been around for a long time.”

By bringing in a diverse range of topics, not only is the symposium exposing students to a greater variety of career paths, but also the discussion helps students understand ethics from an applicable point of view, Olafson said.

“Regardless of what someone does with their life, they’re going to end up with some similar questions or things to deal with,” he said. “What’s interesting is hearing an industry veteran’s process or values that helped them make decisions.”