Local Researchers Concerned Unmanned Aircraft Data In Study Could Be Public Record

Uncertainty surrounding the public availability of data from research partially paid for by state dollars has a UND committee exploring a request for an attorney general ruling on the matter.

The school’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Ethics and Privacy Committee voted Wednesday to move forward with the process of seeking an opinion from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, which will likely require the involvement of other state and university system officials.

The move comes after researchers involved in an agricultural project near Hillsboro, N.D. thought the data collected via unmanned aircraft could be kept private but that may not turn out to be the case.

Legal counsel at North Dakota State University, one of the research partners, concluded last month that because state money is involved, the data belong to the school and not the private business supplying the aircraft.

In that case, the data may at some point be subject to open records law, and so researchers are giving property owners the option of not having their land recorded in the data.

“As far as data privacy concerns go, I feel like we have a working solution to any issues that we might have had in the past,” said Sarah Lovas, an agronomist and committee representative based in Traill County.

The Hillsboro project is a collaboration between NDSU, Elbit Systems and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. Elbit Systems is an Israeli aircraft manufacturing company with an American division.

The research flights from the Hillsboro Regional Airport will be overseen by the test site, which is a public entity that receives some operational funding from the state, similar to universities.

The legal counsel’s conclusion leaves some, including test site Director of Research and Development Chris Theisen, worried the same public record standards will apply to all UAS research projects that receive state money through the ResearchND program.

Elbit Systems received and matched a $357,546 grant from ResearchND, bringing the project’s total budget to $715,000.

Some university officials agreed with the test site’s concern, saying it could create a chilling effect on research between public and private partners.

“This is one of those unexpected issues that has developed, and now we need to get a handle on this before it grinds the test site to a halt,” said Barry Milavetz, an ex-officio member of the committee and UND’s associate vice president of research.

Project details

While university and state officials begin the process of requesting an opinion, test flights are expected to begin this week at the Hillsboro airport.

Elbit’s aircraft, a 20-foot-long Hermes 450, will fly over a swath of farmland stretching about 40 miles to the west into Steele County.

The imagery collected will be compare to photos taken by satellites and smaller unmanned aircraft at lower altitudes. The data also will be used to conduct crop stand counts, find diseased or nutrient-deficient crops and study the impact of excess soil moisture on crops.

Property owners whose land falls within the area have the option to contact researchers and opt out having images taken of their fields. With the potential that the data would be public, those close to the project did say they were worried more landowners would choose to opt out.

“Imagery and related information will be treated as proprietary and confidential to the fullest extent permitted under North Dakota law,” researchers noted in a draft of letter that is in the process of being sent out to affected landowners.

A update meeting on the project will take place at 7 p.m. May 26 in the Traill County Courthouse in Hillsboro.

Landowners wishing to opt out of the project can contact Nowatzki with a legal description of their land at (701) 231-8213 or john.nowatzki@ndsu.edu.