Ethics in drone design: from academia to industry?

February 17, 2021 | 10am-11am EST

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What makes a “good drone”?  Are we in the drone industry making technology that will benefit society by enhancing human welfare, freedom, and fairness?  Or will drones facilitate mass surveillance, deepen widespread unemployment, and increase inequality?  This talk addresses some of the changes that this technology could facilitate – and how to design drones that may lead to more beneficial outcomes.  Value sensitive design, or VSD, a well-established methodology for the proactive and systematic incorporation of human values into technology design, is identified as a useful approach to doing so.  VSD is based on the premise that technology is not ethically neutral, and therefore, that ethics and human values must be considered in technology design.  VSD includes three inter-related phases: 1. a conceptual phase that considers human values and impacted stakeholders, 2. an empirical phase which considers the social impacts of the technology, and 3. a technological phase which determines the design requirements that will support the desired human values.  VSD has a 20 year history in academia, but so far uptake within industry has been more limited – is the drone industry ready for it?


Dylan Cawthorne, Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, the first researcher to explicitly utilize value sensitive design to design, build, and test real drone prototypes.  Two case studies will be presented: first, briefly, that of a humanitarian cargo drone to be operated in the Amazon region of Peru, and second, a blood sample transportation drone to be used in Denmark.  The speaker has developed an ethical framework for the design of drones used in public healthcare contexts in connection with the second case study.  The framework is an applied ethics tool which enhances VSD and eases the conceptual phase for drone engineers, hopefully making it easier for them to consider ethics during drone development. This can lead to designs which represent new solutions to moral dilemmas, and allow the creation of win-win situations.  Ultimately, the aim is drones developed with society, for the benefit of society.