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Below is a blog post from one of our 2023 Human Rights Summer Research Grant awardees, Alex Penne, who spent the summer in Singapore, researching how drone technology affects the standard of living and working in the country
To learn more about the Human Rights Summer Research Grant, click here.


In 2023, Sam Altman, Demis Hassabis, and Dario Amodei signed a letter from the Center for Artificial Intelligence (AI) Safety stating that the entire globe should begin worrying about the dangers of AI and subsequent risks of human extinction. Each of these scientists have an important feature in common; they all have made billions of dollars off their own inventions and improvements of AI. This warning therefore comes after scientists have left AI to a capitalist society where derivative technologies are flourishing and not likely to halt. It is an issue of misplaced responsibility when researchers capitalize on their inventions, ignore possible harmful applications on the public, and then expect the same public to claim responsibility for mitigating the technology.

While I don’t work on AI, my own research at Duke to make unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones,” has not thoroughly been analyzed from a human rights context. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shanghai, China, used drones to enforce strict quarantining rules which was thought by many to be a violation of privacy. In Iran, it has been proposed that drones and AI together could identify women that do not follow mandatory hijab dress codes. These applications are unavoidable yet small in number compared to the multitude of new possibilities that drones have already offered societies around the globe. However, these applications still do exist and should be considered before research improving the technology is released.

With the Human Rights Summer Research Grant, I traveled to Singapore, a small country that uses drones on the daily in government, industry, and recreation. I was able to speak to multiple drone engineers and users to hear their thoughts on how my new research could benefit the standard of living or working in Singapore and ways it may be misused.

Twenty-three hours of travel later, I landed in Singapore and met with Rude Lee from Flyht Studios, a photography and documentary start-up that uses drones to capture high-altitude shots. Lee and I got to fly some drones around for a few hours and then talk about the current state of drone capabilities. Lee believes that without UAVs, his start-up could not have the competitive edge that it has today. The drones that they use have been able to capture footage of endangered animals, landscapes, and urban infrastructure that are used in educational documentaries and journals. It is clear to Lee that the drone research I do is making his business possible and has the potential to bring to light many issues in and around Singapore.

Like all technology, Lee also brings up the point that Singapore regulates drones excessively. For example,, the small country has been able to mitigate harmful uses of drones by instating no-fly zones and banning surveillance of private property to enforce privacy rights. While drone start-ups in Singapore find these regulations cumbersome, even Lee can admit that they are exactly why Singapore is a leader in drone technology.

During my trip, I used photography to capture moments of drone usage and other innovative technology that I couldn’t find in my everyday life in North Carolina. I found hotel robots, an advanced metro system, and contactless pay even in hawker centers (low-cost food stalls that locals often visit). I wanted to investigate the implication of every one of these innovations, but sticking to my plan, I met with other leaders in the UAV industry including Zhansaya Orazbekova from Infinium Robotics.

From an industry perspective, drones are mandatory to reduce hazardous jobs such as climbing and counting inventory or traveling over bodies of water to deliver items. At Infinium Robotics, Orazbekova taught me how drone development is crucial to keeping workers safe. When asked whether all drone research would be appreciated, a resounding “yes” made it obvious that her industry peers would agree on the basis that all research can be used to increase safety protocols. On the point of harmful uses in China and Iran, Orazbelkova agrees that the strict regulations and dedication to preserving human rights through government law is the reason why Singapore has yet to have a major drone crisis. The countless number of rules that Infinium Robotics has to follow has made it possible to succeed as a business without sacrificing human rights.

When doing my own research, I want to bring back these considerations to my entire team. If legislation and restrictions are the key to mitigating human rights violations from UAVs, then the laws need to be enforceable. The next step in this research is to consider the possible harmful applications and decide if regulations are something that a government like Singapore could create and reliably use. If not, there needs to be a serious discussion that prioritizes the public over profits.

My trip to Singapore opened my eyes to what society with drones can look like. It also helped me imagine what it may look like in the future with my own research in the field. With the Human Rights Summer Research Grant, I am walking back into the lab with more caution and a real path to evaluating research through legislation before publishing. This routine is one that scientists in every industry, including AI, should have done and should continue to do.

A huge thank you to the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute for this opportunity. This program has enriched my experience at Duke University and has helped make technology research better suited to preserving human rights around the globe.