Drones dialogue attempts to dispel student concerns

Amir Vera
Staff Writer

If drone warfare increases, what are the benefits? What are the psychological impacts of drone warfare? If other countries develop drones, will there be another arms race? These are some of the questions asked on Monday night at a discussion forum on drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), hosted by students in the School of World Studies.

The discussion panel attempted to inform and eliminate students’ concerns about the development of UAV technology at VCU. Dr. Robert Klenke, founder of the UAV research lab at VCU, enumerated non-military uses for drones like finding storm damage or making repairs and protecting the environment from disasters like wildfires. Students like junior photography major Tito Henriquez, however, remained suspicious of VCU’s research lab.

Students in the School of World Studies organized a forum to discuss drone research and research done by VCU's UAV lab, operated through the School of Engineering. Photo by Jess Lee
Students in the School of World Studies organized a forum to discuss drone research and research done by VCU’s UAV lab, operated through the School of Engineering. Photo by Jess Lee

“I kind of feel like my opposition was solidified after hearing people talk and finding a little bit about VCU’s intentions, or what I feel are the underlying intentions,” Henriquez said. “I feel like they’re still contributing to the surveillance and military usage.”

Monday’s discussion is a continuation of the debate on UAVs at VCU. Klenke founded the VCU UAV research lab in 2003. Since then, VCU has earned first place in an annual collegiate UAV competition, worked with NASA and received funding from Ft. Eustis in Norfolk for its projects. The UAV program has caught the attention of many at VCU who are concerned about the intentions of the lab.

The discussion included five panelists from around the VCU community. Klenke tried to dispel student’s concerns on the UAV program at VCU by explaining what it does and its purpose.

“It is an exciting area of technology. Unmanned vehicles not only in the air, but on the ground and underwater, are an exciting area for students to work in,” Klenke said during his presentation. “I still feel there is a segment of the university community that feels like research done for military purposes, regardless of what it is, is not something the university should be doing.”

Anthony Ellis, associate professor of law and ethics and one of the panelists, said people are concerned about two main things in terms of UAVs, the disobeying of international laws and the growing acceptance of surveillance technology in countries.

“A lot of what has been done by drones, not everything, but a lot has been justified by the laws of war,” Ellis said. “The War on Terror is a metaphor; like the War on Drugs, it is not legally a war.”

Aside from the legal and ethical discussion of drones, the psychological effect of using this technology was also discussed. Associate professor of religious studies Mark Wood brought up a study by Stanford University and New York University which discussed the life of Pakistani civilians living in area often hit by drone strikes.

“They found that people are suffering from all the types of things that you could imagine people suffering from who are concerned about being attacked on a fairly regular basis, including not even wanting to step out of their homes,” Wood said. “(Pakistanis were) suffering from symptoms that we often associate with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Caleb Smith, representative for the Students for Democratic Society, spoke on the panel about how both the public and students should be more informed about uses of UAVs. Smith said the public should strongly consider the issues surrounding UAV use before putting resources into drone technology because there is little information available on their capabilities.

“We don’t know what’s going on and we can’t devote this (many) resources to something we don’t have the legislation set up in place to account for the government abusing our rights,” Smith said.

Despite some negative feedback from participants, Klenke said the UAV research lab only researches how to enhance UAV technology, although it does receive military sponsorship. The military has rights to use the research found for their purposes through what Klenke cited as government usage license rights. However, they do not have the right to use it commercially; those rights stay with VCU.

Klenke said the main purpose of the UAV labs as an entity of VCU is for education and research.

“The VCU UAV research lab, like any other university research lab, is all about the students,” Klenke said. “We want to provide the students the opportunity to participate in this cutting-edge technology … and we want to help faculty, like me, to teach the students to stay up to date in advances in their respective fields.

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