A VCU student group has started a Facebook petition calling for greater transparency in VCU’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle research.
Students for a Democratic Society hopes to engage students actively in the debate and plans to organize an event on campus in the coming weeks.
“Our goal in this campaign is not to close the lab by any means, but to get a statement from VCU about the true intent of the technology,” SDS member Margaret Carmel said. “We are actively working to inform the student body on this issue.”
In early 2012, VCU’s Students for a Democratic Society first heard of the UAV Research Lab in the School of Engineering’s West Hall.
Searching for compelling student causes, SDS members saw a nexus of military funding, compartmentalized projects and seeming secrecy surrounding VCU’s UAV Lab. Because of his prior experience in document release, longtime local activist Chris Dorsey worked with students to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on SDS’ behalf to learn more about the lab’s specific government contracts and financial records.
Members were disappointed by the lack of financial records in the FOIA release, but they were hot on the trail of a variety of UAV projects with Navy submarines and NASA. Students needed more information to form a clear picture, but the rising number of drone assassinations overseas has fueled opposition to drone use and research.
“Our biggest issue is that VCU may be developing these drones for combat use, a practice that we do not believe is humane due to its tendency to kill civilians,” said SDS member Margaret Carmel.
The petition now has more than 100 people signed on and expresses concerns about the potential usage of UAV technology to violate privacy rights of U.S. citizens.
Compiling documents for UAV Lab FOIA requests is electrical engineering professor Robert Klenke, the lab’s founder. He says he’s been fighting to research and promote technology that offers “limitless” potential, but is currently associated with military proliferation and stigmatization of modern warfare.
“We do not build weapons here,” Klenke said. “We don’t even have video systems on most of our aircraft because that’s not what we’re interested in with our research.”
Klenke explained that VCU’s current research focuses mainly on collaborative UAV algorithms, specifically those used in search and rescue cases where multiple UAVs would need to decide which vehicle would search which piece of a larger area. The submarine research is a Department of Defense contract seeking UAVs for use in the precise placement of sonobuoys, or underwater acoustic microphones, used to detect submarine activity. The lab is connected to NASA through Project AirSTAR, where researchers used scale models flown by VCU’s autopilot system to test and improve commercial flight safety.
SDS also expressed financial concerns in their petition.
“Instead of spending our tuition money on weapons, the university should instead spend it on opening more classes and paying a livable salary to adjunct professors and service employees,” the petition said.
Klenke said that the UAV Lab brings money into the university rather than re-routing funds from within VCU. Funding and contract procurement follows the same process for all government agencies from the Department of Defense to the National Science Foundation. The money is used to pay salaries for graduate students and associate professors, as well as purchasing lab equipment available to students.
UAVs are also used to aid first responders in rescue and recovery, measure the ocean level for more accurate mapping of global warming effects for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, use hyperspectral imaging of crops for farmers to allow for decreased dependence on pesticides and fertilizer and a host of other promising applications.
Both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill barring state and local agencies from using drones for two years, which lawmakers say will give them time to consider the applications and potential problems with governmental UAV use.
Although he defends UAV research, Klenke said he shares students worries about drone assassination and privacy invasion.
“I have some issues with how unmanned vehicles are being used by the CIA and this administration,” Klenke said. “I think that is a vital public debate that needs to take place, and I support the recent two-year moratorium passes in the Virginia General Assembly.”
In spite of their proven potential in research, UAVs cannot be flown in commercial airspace until the Federal Aviation Administration integrates it, which the U.S. Congress has mandated to occur by 2015.
“UAV use is heavily biased towards the military because they’re the only ones who can legally operate them,” Klenke said. “People simply aren’t aware of other uses.”