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Using Drones to Study Human Beings: Ethical and Regulatory Issues


Researchers have used drones to track wildlife populations, monitor forest fires, map glaciers, and measure air pollution but have only begun to consider how to use these unmanned aerial vehicles to study human beings. The potential use of drones to study public gatherings or other human activities raises novel issues of privacy, confidentiality, and consent, which this article explores in depth. It argues that drone research could fall into several different categories: non-human subjects research (HSR), exempt HSR, or non-exempt HSR. In the case of non-exempt HSR, it will be difficult for institutional review boards to approve studies unless they are designed so that informed consent can be waived. Whether drone research is non-HSR, exempt HSR, or non-exempt HSR, it is important for investigators to consult communities which could be affected by the research.

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  1. 1.

    Privacy is a broader concept than confidentiality. Privacy includes the right to be protected from unwanted invasions of one’s body, private space, or private information. Confidentiality refers to the protection of private information (Hodge and Gostin 2008).

  2. 2.

    We note that the Common Rule revisions do not change the definition of private information (Department of Homeland Security et al. 2017 at 45 CFR 46.102e).

  3. 3.

    It is worth noting that this logical inconsistency is not unique to drone research but occurs whenever one applies the Common Rule to observations of public behavior.

  4. 4.

    It is worth noting that drone research raises some issues beyond the scope of this paper. For example, an authoritarian government might use drone research to gather information to stop or disrupt peaceful demonstrations. However, such a government would probably not be concerned about protecting the rights and welfare of human subjects in any case.


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The research was supported, in part, by the Intramural Program of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health (NIH). It does not represent the views of the NIEHS, NIH, or U.S. government.

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Correspondence to David B. Resnik.

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Resnik, D.B., Elliott, K.C. Using Drones to Study Human Beings: Ethical and Regulatory Issues. Sci Eng Ethics 25, 707–718 (2019).

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  • Drones
  • Research
  • Privacy
  • Confidentiality
  • Consent
  • Ethics
  • Regulation