Drones, the University, and the Making of an Institute

Yesterday I attended a UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) summit meeting on the campus of the University of North Dakota. The meeting was the first step in the establishment of the IUAR, the Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research. While the name of the institute sounds a bit like a dystopian fantasy where research happens without researchers and following some kind of formulaic diktat, it actually refers to various kinds of autonomous vehicles (drones, in particular, but broadly construed as well).

The meeting was “World Cafe” style, where people rotated through groups in 25 minute intervals brainstorming around a series of questions. I participated in three groups, one geared toward the future of these kinds of technologies (ancient historian as futurist!), one on data flow, and one on policy. The conversations at these roundtables were brisk, well-moderated, and productive, but they were also short!

So I’ve taken to the ole blog to respond more thoroughly to my experiences at the event. To be clear, I’m not really responding to the idea of IUAR in particular, but instead thinking about how people were talking about this initiative and how its place within my own developing thoughts about higher education.

1. Billboard or Factory?

One of the interesting themes in the conversation yesterday was the impact of the IUAR on the University of North Dakota’s reputation on a regional, national, and global scale. The presentations from administrators advocating for this institute were a curious mix of asking us to produce something (like a factory) and promoting what we already do (like a billboard). Now, I recognize that most good initiatives in higher education are part factory (promoting collaboration to produce new things) and part billboards (advertising what it is that we’re doing), but the current conversation around IUAR on campus seemed curiously skewed toward the billboard side of the equation.

The question that kept popping into my mind is whether this initiative is designed produce reputation or new knowledge? And if it is the latter, what kind of knowledge and technologies and approaches and ideas is it designed to produce? Or, in a more academic way, what problem is the IUAR designed to solve (see point 4 below)?

2. Surplus Energy.

One thing that interested me a good bit about the summit yesterday was how few faculty in the room worked on UAS technology or application as the main focus of their research. Many of us, however, had thought a bit about drones or used them in the field, but few of us considered ourselves experts in the field of UAS (although to be clear there were some folks with that expertise in the room).

For an institute like the one proposed to thrive, it will have to rely on surplus energy found in small pockets across campus. This surplus energy derives from faculty who have some, modest interest in some aspect of UAS technology, policy, or application, but not enough interest to shift our academic focus to UAS exclusively or even devote the majority of our time to the technical and political complexities of these devices. To make an institute like IUAR work, however, campus leaders need to convince us to dedicate some small part of our energies to the greater good of the institute. It is not quite as simple as taking whatever percentage of our energies we dedicate to drones and the like and shifting that to the work of the institute. There is a kind of friction that happens with a collaborative endeavor where energies are spent in organizing, adjusting our research agendas, institutional work, and other small exertions to, ideally, reap the greater benefit of shared labor.

There is always a balance and whatever the institute becomes has to do enough for those people investing in it to make it worth the exertion of energy. This is all the more vital for individuals who dedicate only a small percentage of their time to main focus on the institute. For someone like me, the benefits will have to be comparatively large in comparison to the small investment of time that I make thinking about UAS technology to be worth it.

3. Models for funding.

I’m intrigued about funding models in higher education. Recently a longstanding project on campus was critiqued and de-funded because it lacked a sustainable business model. At the same time, it is clear that not all parts of a university have to be self-sustaining. Some part of the university are so close to the university’s core mission that they needn’t have sustainable funding model to be vital to what a university does. For example, a library does not have to raise its own funds through fines and fundraising (let’s pretend) to fulfill its basic functions because a university without a library is hardly a university at all.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, universities often act like venture capitalists in supporting innovations in basic and applied research because they recognize that new ideas are often fraught with economic risk and uncertainty and are rarely structured with sustainability as a goal. The funding in this case tends to be entrepreneurial funding and focused on small pilot projects the demonstrate proof of concept or emphasize one step toward a larger goal.

The IUAR project is a bit of a hybrid. It is a top down project initiated by the president, so it has some of the characteristics of projects so deeply embedded in the core of the university to not require a sustainable funding model and perhaps amenable to funding through direct allocation of resources. On the other hand, the absence of a large number of on campus stakeholders (for example, I was the only person from the humanities in the room and maybe there were only three or four faculty from the largest college on campus, Arts and Sciences), suggests that this is a kind of a niche project that perhaps would directly benefit a small number of faculty and develop best through a funding model that emphasized the focused nature of the research rather than its broad standing across campus. These kinds of project either derive from entrepreneurial activities and receive funding like venture capital and then shift to a grant funded or “soft money” model later.

What was strange, is that there was clearly no plan for sustainable funding presented at this meeting. In fact, the participants were asked to help imagine ways to fund this initiative. While this was fine as the meeting was an informal brainstorming session, it did make me wonder whether this kind of project might have been better initiated with a small number of researchers doing very focused research. Or, alternately with a bucket of money for a certain length of time to support its broad mission. In the meeting, it felt betwixt and between, not broad enough to be part of the core mission of the university, but also not focused enough to be entrepreneurial.

4. Technology or Problems?

Part of the issue, of course, is that the institute as currently imagined will focus on a technology rather than a problem. Most academic research focuses around solving a problem and collaborations tend to focus around various aspects of a problem rather than technical knowledge. Hence, entrepreneurial funding goes to groups of collaborators who begin to develop a solution to a particular problem. The IUAR initiative appeared, at least from the meeting yesterday, to lack a clear focus on a problem. There were problems, to be sure, that ranged from technological challenges – battery life, lifting power, ands so on – to policy and perception issues, but none of these stood at the center of the conversation.

I wonder whether a new, academic, research institute should start small, use an entrepreneurial model, and focus on specific problems established by industry practices and application or basic research challenges would be both an economically better move on the part of a cash-strapped university as well as resonate more fundamentally with the way researchers approach technology.

5. Outcomes and Trajectories.

I wonder how an institute oriented around a particular technology will fare compared to an institute focused on solving a particular problem. On the one hand, it might be that an institute focused on a kind of technology persists more readily in the modern university climate and has greater opportunities to reward the initial investment in its development. Their mission is ambiguous enough to allow them to be flexible in a dynamic world.

On the other hand, I’m always interested in how we can evaluate the success of such institutions when they are not focused on contributing to the solution of a particular problem. If the IUAR is designed to be a billboard to advertise good work already done at UND, then that allays some of my worries, but if it is a factory, I worry that the lack of a clear product will make its viability pretty contingent.

Finally, as I’ve blogged about at other times, I’m curious how the proposers of this institute see its trajectory, and this involves both its growth and its decline (and termination). Baking the end of an institution into its origins offers a way to keep the the institution focused on its present mission, subverts the exhausting task of “strategic planning” or other forms of “continuous improvement,” and ensures that resources, personnel, and energies don’t become pooled in places by dint of tradition rather than productive outcomes. For an institute focusing on technology, establishing a trajectory might be more fraught, because the ultimate development of a particular technology through time is not always well anticipated, but it might also be particularly useful, because it would manage the intermediate term investment in something that might be short-term trend or represent a short-term need in the development of a particular set of technological challenges.

To be clear none of this is to criticize the IUAR before it even gets started. And, of course, I recognize that building consensus across a diverse campus is tricky and the origins of any new project is almost always a messy process. What remains interesting to me, however, are the moments of ambiguity that I encountered at the summit yesterday, and it will be intriguing to see if these are issues that the institute can resolve moving forward or fatal flaws in its conception.

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