Skip to main content

From Alaska's wilderness and Boeing factories to SDU: Dylan from the USA sets ethical boundaries for drones

Just because you can develop a technology, does not necessarily mean you should. This comes from 40-year-old Dylan Cawthorne, who grew up in a cabin in Alaska and has built aircraft for the aerospace giant Boeing - today he teaches the drone student at SDU and has just introduced a new ethics course into the teaching schedule.

By Jakob Haugaard Christiansen, , 9/14/2021

He grew up in a primitive cabin in the US wilderness in the state of Alaska. He has built aircraft for the aerospace giants Boeing in Seattle and Scale Composites in California. He has also been part of a drone startup at Bornholm, and worked for the Vissenbjerg composite materials company TenCate.

Today the 40-year-old lecturer and PhD Dylan Cawthorne teaches at the drone study in Odense, where he puts ethics on the school schedule for the young engineers, teaching the new course "Ethics in Drone and Robotic Systems Design".

- There is a lot of focus on what can be done in the industry, but very little on what technologies we should develop.  That, I think, is very scary, says the American who has lived in Denmark for 10 years.

The last seven years he has taught the use of composite materials and the design of drone technologies at the Technical Faculty in Odense, where he also completed his PhD. It was precisely focused on ethics and moral dilemmas in the development and design of drones - so that they benefit people and society.

- As an engineer you have a lot of power in the world, therefore there should be a focus on ethics, social impacts, and philosophy in our subject, he says.
Cabin without electricity

Dylan Cawthorne spent his childhood far from Odense and SDU. He grew up in a small cabin in the wilderness near the city of Wrangell in Alaska in the northwestern US. His father was what Dylan calls part of the Hippie culture of the 60s in the United States, while his mother was a nature lover and craftsperson from Southern Georgia, where Dylan's grandfather worked at Georgia Tech maintaining the first computers.

- My father did not believe in government systems and preferred to avoid them by living in our remote cabin.   We were taught at home by my mother, my sister until the first grade and myself until the third grade.  My mother eventually moved back to Georgia to teach at the local university while my father stayed in the cabin until his death, says Dylan Cawthorne.

- It was a hard life without electricity or running water, and in no way romantic, as you see it in Hollywood movie, says the Drone researcher.
He grew up in the Midwest and was educated as a mechanical engineer before working at Boeing in Seattle and Scale Composites in the Mojave Desert in California.

- I was very keen to have a career because I had experienced being poor and staying in a cabin out in the forest. It was great to have the financial security, but it was also a disappointment, because there were many colleagues who were tired of their jobs.  It turned out to be a bit of an illusion of success that money does not equal happiness, he says today.

TenCate in Vissenbjerg

He was increasing tired of a life centered on work and money in the best American style. A Danish girl changed the perspective and framework, so life in the sunshine of California was exchanged with a life in Denmark and Vissenbjerg in the first place.

- I got a job at the company TenCate (part of the defense industry in Denmark, ed.) on Funen, while my then girlfriend lived and work in Copenhagen, says Dylan Cawthorne.

After a job at a Danish drone startup at Bornholm, he discovered that the university in Odense was looking for a teacher who could introduce the engineering students about composite materials.

- I had a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience in the aerospace industry, so I got the job and started teaching once a week. I was terrified in the beginning, because I was just an engineer and had absolutely no experience in teaching, and suddenly 30 young people were asking me questions.

It is seven years ago today and the fear has now been replaced by the thrill of being able to influence young people - both with new knowledge – but also with ethical considerations about innovation and technology.

Therefore, when the students start the coming semester at the Maersk McKinney Møller Institute, Dylan therefore focuses on ethics and moral considerations when designing and building drones.

- It is very scary that ethics are rarely considered in the industry. The focus should be on what we as a society want with our technology and the developments we are pushing to achieve. Drones and artificial intelligence are a bit like a "Black Box" – in some ways, similar to social media - which is a problematic social experiment in the public space, says the Drone teacher.

Drones made of wood with privacy-preserving cameras

He builds, for example, drones in wood and reduces the number of blades down to a single rotor. It is about environmental sustainability and noise reduction for both animals and people. He also points to computer vision and camera functions on inspection and healthcare drones, where privacy can be violated.

- You may need to look at whether you have a very high-resolution image, or whether you can settle for less so that the people on the ground can be in left in peace. I have also had students who have designed software which blocks out buildings from the camera’s view to protect privacy, he says.

He looks back on an education and career in the industry, where topics such as ethics, morals and societies have not been given the same weight as innovation and “progress”.  There is some interest from the students, although the course in September starts with a small class size.

- Part of the problem is that we do not motivate students to be interested in ethics. There was a study among US students that showed that the ethical considerations were actually declining during the studies. In fact, one of my students had the interest in the beginning, but during his education there was no focus on it, so his interest went away, he says.

The drone researcher hopes that he can help influence both the individual student and the industry they are entering.

- They may have learned that these considerations are not really their responsibility, so it is also a paradigm shift; students must learn that they have to look at the consequences of the technology they help to develop, say Dylan Cawthorne.

The cabin near Wrangell Alaska – now inherited from his father - is still there, cared for by his sister who continues to live in the area.


Dylan Cawthorne, 40, associate professor and PhD Mærsk Mc-Kinney-Møller Institute, Faculty of Engineering, SDU

Teaches drone technology.

Born and raised in Wrangell, Alaska, USA.

Educated mechanical engineer from the University of Minnesota and the University of North Dakota, USA.

Subsequently worked for Boeing in Seattle and Scale Composites in California.

Has lived in Denmark for 10 years - lives today in Odense.

Has worked for a Danish drone startup on Bornholm and the company TenCate in Vissenbjerg on Funen.

Has just launched the course "Ethics in Drones and Robotics Systems Design”, where the first students start at the beginning of the semester in September.

Editing was completed: 14.09.2021