Legal, Ethical and Safe Use of Drones for Archaeological Research
UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or “drones” as they are commonly referred to, are increasingly common in archaeology. Drones are an emerging technology that can provide low cost tools for aerial photography, regional surveys, site identification, excavation documentation, mapping and 3D photogrammetry. They are often cheaper than other aerial photography systems, operate under a wide variety of conditions, and can be quickly deployed in difficult environments. The drones used in archaeology are not the large and frightening remote killing machines that make the news for their questionable use in air strikes by the United States Military. Instead, archaeological drones have their roots in the world of radio controlled hobbyist models and are frequently built from off-the-shelf components marketed primarily to radio control model enthusiasts.
Drones built for research are a fantastic tool and are increasingly being utilized by archaeologists and researchers in related fields. However, they also have the potential to pose significant safety and privacy risks. This article is a brief discussion of three key ethical and legal considerations for archaeologists who are beginning to use UAVs or are considering the use of this technology in the future:
- Legal and responsible use of shared airspace
- Privacy concerns regarding aerial photography
- Safety of operators and bystanders during use
Legal and Responsible Use of Airspace
Remotely controlled model airplanes have been around for decades, but only in the last several years has their use proliferated rapidly among non-hobbyists. The cost of both components and complete models has dropped dramatically in price, making it an attractive option for aerial photography. However,even the cheapest radio controlled models can fly several hundred meters into the air where they may potentially interfere with manned aircraft. Consequently, UAV operators must comply with guidance on the safe use of congested airspace, including altitude restrictions and no-fly zones around airports and high-security areas.
Due to the increased air activity, governments around the globe are beginning to actively regulate the operation of UAVs. In the United States, recreational use is allowed with some restriction on altitude (400 ft), location, and proximity to spectators and populated places. Commercial operation of UAVs is essentially not allowed. However, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the FAA to develop a plan to integrate civil and public UAVs into US airspace by 2015.
Other countries are also enacting UAV-related legislation. In Canada it is possible to fly UAVs commercially after receiving a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). SFOCs have a variety of restrictions, and are only available on a case-by-case basis while permanent laws are being written. Australia requires an operator’s certificate, which is similar to a full-size aircraft pilot’s license. The European Union is currently drafting a proposal for how to integrate UAVs into general air traffic.
In short, laws and regulations governing the use of UAVs for research are developing rapidly, and at present it not always clear whether the scientific use of UAVs by nonprofit researchers is governed by commercial or recreational legislation. Archaeologists and researchers who want to use UAVs should consult with local authorities in order to remain up to date and in compliance with local laws and customs.
Privacy Concerns Regarding Aerial Photography
The advent of UAV technology has made it easier for both civilian operators and governments to acquire aerial imagery of any location at any time. This can and should be of significant concern with regards to civil liberties and personal privacy. For archaeologists, the appropriate use of drones is covered by the AAA code of ethics, which forbids secretive and clandestine research, requires us to be open and honest about our work and exhorts us to do no harm. At a minimum, archaeologists using UAVs to collect visual data should obtain permission from local authorities and/or property owners, avoid photographing populated areas, and obtain consent prior to photographing individuals. At academic institutions, institutional review boards should develop standards for evaluating research protocols that use UAVs.
Increasingly, concern over the potential harm of domestic aerial reconnaissance is the driving force behind local legislation that may limit the use of drones for all applications, including scientific projects. In the past year legislative bodies in several American states have considered or passed laws restricting UAV use on the basis of protecting privacy. Oregon is currently considering a law that would make even the ownership of archaeology-style drones illegal. Similar laws have been introduced in Virginia, California, Texas, Missouri, and six other states.
Safety of Operators and Bystanders
A final key consideration is the safe operation of this technology. All UAVs can be dangerous: they can and do fly as fast as a car, weigh up to several kilograms, and typically rely on one or more propellers that can cut skin. While UAV technology can be used safely, even the most advanced are more prone to accidents than manned aircraft. Additionally archaeologists with little previous radio-control experience may be lulled into a false sense of security by purchasing more expensive models that appear to require less training to safely operate. In fact, any of these systems can fly away or crash, and all require significant training for safe operation.
Archaeologists using UAVs should be proactive in adopting and following guidelines for safe operation. The Remote Control Aerial Photography Association, a group lobbying for self-regulated commercial use of the National Airspace for UAVs, has published a set of safe-use recommendations that provide some good starting points including:
- Be aware of legal restrictions on flying
- Always give right of way to manned aircraft
- Avoid flying over persons or property
- Remain in line-of-site with the model at all times
- Ensure aircraft are tested and deemed airworthy before being put into service
- Ensure extensive and comprehensive pre-flight checks are performed
- Keep aircraft at a safe operating distance from people and buildings
- Use a spotter to assist in scanning for hazards on the ground and in the air
UAVs are a useful and exciting new technology that can be used for a wide variety of roles within archaeology, but it is important that they be used in a responsible, safe, and legal manner. Archaeologists are encouraged to begin utilizing these tools, but should do so in a manner that accounts for local legal requirements, and utilizes appropriate training and preliminary testing before field deployment.
Austin “Chad” Hill of Christian Albrechts University of Kiel, Germany can be reached at email@example.com or Austin.Hill@foodwaysproject.org.
Morag Kersel is contributing editor of Ethical Currents, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Ethics. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.