Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have a long history of usage. According to
DraganFly Innovations Inc., early UAVs took the form of balloons and they were primarily used for military purposes for monitoring and eliminating enemies in the battlefield. However, in recent years, UAVs have been increasingly used by civilians to accomplish various scientific and humanitarian missions. Due to their promising ability to accomplish tasks that otherwise could have been tedious, unreachable or even dangerous to civilians, our team has considered the idea of improving the current models of UAVs in order to make them more biodegradable, modular and even cheaper and hence increasing their accessibility and practicability to the scientific and civilian societies.
In the midst of our scientific design process and laboratory work, our team has taken into serious consideration the risks, ethics and stigma of using UAVs for civilian uses. Our aim in conducting this iGEM human practices project was to dive deep into the social and economic impacts of using synthetic biology in general. Our second aim was to consider how to work around the stigma present in society regarding the uses of UAVs. Part of this project was also to discuss the regulations and policies involved in the flying of civilian UAVs and assess the accessibility and practicability of the current civilian UAVs. The main reason of doing this human practices project was to bring our laboratory work closer to humanity by assessing the impacts of our creation to the general society.
Our Work with the EPA— Synthetic Biology in the Air: Biological UAVs and Environmental Safety Concerns
We are currently working on a series of projects towards the construction of a fully biological unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for use in scientific and humanitarian missions. The prospect of a biologically-produced UAV presents numerous advantages over the current manufacturing paradigm. First, a foundational architecture built by cells allows for construction or repair in locations where it would be difficult to bring traditional tools of production. Second, a major limitation of current research with UAVs is the size and high power consumption of analytical instruments, which require bulky electrical components and large fuselages to support their weight. By moving these functions into cells with biosensing capabilities – for example, a series of cells engineered to report GFP, green fluorescent protein, when conditions exceed a certain threshold concentration of a compound of interest, enabling their detection post-flight – these problems of scale can be avoided.
However, housing live cells on an aerial system presents a new set of problems, chief amongst which is the concern of horizontal gene transfer. Bacterial cells can perform conjugation, a process which allows for plasmids (small, circular strands of DNA) to be copied from one organism to another. In our case, we must take steps to protect the environment from our cells and avoid the possibility that our engineered genes proliferate throughout ecosystems. In addition, not dissimilar to the problem of mechanical UAVs getting lost or crashing and leaching toxins into the environment, we must address what might happen if our biological UAV were to crash and allow the cells on its biofilm to act as an invasive species.
We are harnessing the power of genetic engineering to mitigate both of these scenarios. To address horizontal gene transfer, we are recoding the cells on our UAV to use the UAG stop codon, which usually signals the truncation of a protein during translation, as leucine, an amino acid, instead. When we engineer the genes we wish to transform into our cells (an “amberless” strain, as UAG stop is called “amber”), all instances of UAG will be replaced with different stop codons, and all leucine residues will be coded for by UAG. Thus, any engineered genes which are passed from an amberless cell to a normal cell in the environment will not be read correctly, as each leucine residue will be instead be interpreted as “stop” and will result in the production of a non-functional protein fragment. We hope that our amberless strain can be adopted as a model for any engineered organisms one might wish to send into the environment.
Finally, to address the invasion of our cells into the environment, we are engineering a pressure-sensitive “kill switch.” Upon crash, the cells will activate quorum sensing (a method of intercellular communication), which will act as a signal to begin producing a set of proteins which can degrade the cellulose acetate base material. Much of the UAV (minus the metals) will degrade into glucose, which can be taken up by organisms in the crash environment, while the engineered cells will be killed by the free acetate, which, hopefully, will be in high enough concentration to harm the biofilm but not the crash environment.
In order to determine whether these measures would be enough to ensure the safe and ethical dispersal of recombinant DNA into the environment, we have begun conversations with Dr. Mark Segal at the US Environmental Protection Agency. These talks served two purposes: to understand the current status of regulations surrounding the release of engineered biological materials into the environment and to see whether our adapted amberless concept might serve to clarify certain gray areas and push regulations forward, making them more sensible for researchers and safer for ecosystems everywhere. Currently, the study of genetically-modified organisms in the environment is covered under the 1997 Microbial Products of Biotechnology section of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which says that limited, controlled trials are exempt from seeking EPA approval. However, the ultimate application of these recombinant cells in remote sensing capabilities (i.e. on a biodegradable UAV) would require approval from the EPA in the form of a TSCA Environmental Release Application (TERA). We are still in the process of determining whether our amberless concept could act as a case study for the EPA to consider when drafting new regulations.
Uses of UAVs
In order to fully understand the benefits, risks and ethics of using UAVs and to address the stigma surrounding their use, we first had to get first hand information from experts who work on, or use UAVs for their daily activities. To do this, we conducted short interviews (15 minutes long) with experts from various fields including Earth Sciences, Planetary Sciences, Synthetic Biology and Remote Sensing. The responses from these experts increased our knowledge on the current uses of UAVs, the capabilities of the current models, the regulations of handling UAVs and the future of this technology. We have used (and will continue to use) these responses as a tool to increase awareness to people of the good uses of UAVs.
In addition to interviewing experts, we conducted a social survey that was aimed at getting the general public’s opinion on the uses of UAVs for civilian uses. This survey correlated people’s knowledge of UAVs and their opinions on UAVs and apart from helping us get a general sense of the public’s opinion, it has made us believe that, the more people know about the beneficial uses of UAVs, the more they will be willing to try, use or even add to this new technology.
Part A: Interviews
We interviewed 5 experts: 4 from NASA Ames Research Center and 1 from Brown University. From NASA Ames, we had the honor to interview Dr. Lynn Rothschild (expert in synthetic biology and the supervisor of S-B-S iGEM team), Vince Ambrosia (Earth Scientist), Matthew Fladeland and Randy Berthold. From Brown University, we had a pleasure of interview Prof. Jim Head who is an expert on planetary sciences and Satellite missions.
All of the interviewees were asked the same questions ranging from how they use UAVs in their specific jobs, their opinion on synthetic biology and the future of UAVs. The links of the videos have been posted on our wiki. Before giving the detailed responses of the interviews, we have compiled the answers of each question so as to get a list of uses of UAVS.
Below is a short summary of the major responses for 3 main questions: the uses of UAVs, the value of Synthetic Biology in general and in creating UAVs and how to address the stigma of using UAVs:
1. Uses of UAVs
a. Looking for life elsewhere:
UAVs are excellent tools for searching for life in areas where it might be too dangerous for humans to reach. Dr. Lynn Rothschild sees the potential in using UAVs for searching for new life forms on planet earth and other planets. She also sees the potential of linking synthetic biology in creating cheaper, safer-for-the environment and biodegradable UAVs
b. Disaster analysis and Wildfire Control:
Would you send a human being in the middle of a natural disaster, or would you rather send a machine? Vince Ambrosia and Matthew Fladeland see the potential in using UAVs for wildfire control, natural disaster analysis and recording of real-time sensory data in order to have a better control of disaster management.
c. Working in harsh, unreachable areas:
Dr. Randy Berthold sees potential in using UAVs in places that are hard to reach, and in places where noise/increase of sound might disturb the measurements. UAVs could reach areas with toxic gases and extreme temperatures.
d. Planetary Exploration:
Prof. Jim Heads from Brown University finds a lot of potential in using UAVs for geological and planetary Exploration. UAVs will be an efficient way to record sensory data which cover a large area without worrying about transporting astronauts and the costs that go with that.
e. Coast Guard Exploration:
Dr. Philip McGillivard, a science liaison from Coast Guard PACAREA who has been working on Autonomous Underwater Systems (AUS) finds a lot of potential in linking UAVs with AUS in exploring coasts. UAVs can be used to explore and identify features of interest such as an oceanographic front or an iceberg and later, UAVs can communicate this information to surface vehicles which will then send the information to Underwater Systems in order to study that specific ocean area.
2. Opinions on Synthetic biology
All of our interviewees believed that synthetic biology presents great potentials and capabilities in technology, especially in creating cheaper and eco-friendly technology. Most admitted that the scientific society is yet to discover the full potential of using synthetic biology for their missions. The experts working on UAVs reported that one of the limitations of using UAVs in their jobs is the payload of the UAV. They believed that UAV technology could be largely improved if synthetic biology can create cheaper and lighter payloads with high efficient capabilities.
3. How can we address the stigma surrounding UAVs?
All the interviewees agreed that people have concerns on the uses of UAVs mainly due to their connection with military uses, and also due to fear of their personal safety. The interviewed experts said this stigma could be addressed effectively if people are informed on the beneficial uses of UAVs, and if they are informed of the policies and regulations present on the uses of UAVs.
Part B: Social Survey
The social survey was conducted primarily for the purpose of collecting general public’s opinion on the use of UAVs for civilian uses. The survey was posted in many different social networks such as tweeter and Facebook. Due to the nature of the survey and how it was advertised, we ended up having most of the respondents (over 90%) of age from 18-25 years. The total number of people who responded to the survey questions was 117.
Q1: This chart above shows that over 90% of the respondents of this survey where of age 18-29. This shows a limitation of our survey in that it did not reach a wide range of public. However, the survey got opinions of young people who are the active creators and makers in our current world and their opinion is very important to the future of the scientific world.
Q2: The aim of asking people this question was to get a sense of how educated people are and find out how their level of education connects to their general opinion on UAVs. As it is obvious from the graph, around 80% of the respondents were college students, and some had just recently graduated from college. It is interesting to know what college students think since they represent the youthful part of the society that is very creative and innovative and very influential to the society.
Q3: Around 70% of the total respondents reported to have first heard of UAVs through television and through local and national newspapers. 6.84% of the respondents did not know what drones were. Around 10% of respondents reported to have first heard of drones in other ways that the question did not specify and these responses included the Internet, family members, high school courses and through online articles. In general, the media has been the main source of information on UAVs and their uses. This response shows us that we can utilize the media, especially various types of social media to educate people on good uses of UAVs.
Q4: This question was probably one of the most interesting in the survey. Around 70% of the respondents reported that the first thing that comes to mind when they think of UAVs os UAVs for military uses. Even though most of the respondents were college students and they presumably have heard of other uses of UAVs, they still relate UAVs tp their military uses. However, around 10% of the respondents did appreciate that UAVs are a great technology that can be used constructively in other areas of life.
Q5: Even though 70% of respondents related UAVs to military uses, around 45% thought that using drones for civilian uses is a good idea. Although this number is not too low, around half of the respondents (around 55%) either were not interested in the UAV technology or did not think it was a good idea to introduce drones as a tool to use for societal functions. This indicated a window of opportunity for us to educate more and more people, starting with college students (who are potential creators and makers of our society) and reach other communities at large.
Q6: Interestingly, even though half of the respondents responded against the use of UAVs for civilian uses, 70% of the total respondents believed that UAVs could be beneficial to society. This could mean that people do believe in the technology of UAVs and its potential, but are afraid of its use in society. This fear could be due to uncertainty on the control of using UAVs and the fear about people's personal safety and privacy. However, if policies and regulations controlling the uses of UAVs were made transparent to the general public, more people would feel safer and more accepting towards the introduction of UAVs for civilian uses.