drone identification

Drone identification: What we know about the FAA ARC plans so far

In the future, the Federal Aviation Administration could implement a system of remotely identifying drones while they’re in the air, as well as finding the pilot operating that drone.

Many suspect that the FAA could implement some sort of drone identification system similar to automotive license plates, which allow law enforcement to identify a vehicle’s owner without stopping the car. Others have suggested that the FAA could come out with a system that tracks or records the location of all drones in real time.

The FAA created a UAS Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (sometimes referred to as ARC) to make proposals about the details of a drone identification and tracking system. The ARC group had its first series of meetings last week.

“During this initial meeting, the ARC considered issues such as existing regulations applicable to drone identification and tracking, air traffic management for drones, concerns and authorities of local law enforcement, and potential legal considerations,” according to a statement from the FAA. “The group developed some preliminary questions and identification parameters, and reviewed a sample of existing identification technologies.”

The group’s conversations could also lay the groundwork for future regulatory expansion around allowing drone flights over people and beyond line of site.

Last year, the United States Congress directed the FAA to develop approaches to remotely identifying the operators and owners of drones, and set deadlines for doing so over the next two years.  Here’s what we know so far:

What is the point of the FAA ARC committee?

Back in December 2015, the FAA implemented a controversial requirement that hobby drone users register their devices. The program, which was struck down in a federal appeals court in May of 2017,  required hobby drone owners to register through an FAA website for a $5 fee. Drone hobbyists were then issued a unique identification, which they were required to mark on their drones. Within the first month, nearly 300,000 drone owners had registered,  and as of March 2017, 770,000 drones had been registered.

Many drone users had accepted that the drone-registration process was a means of educating users about safety. Some drone users suspect that it was in reaction to events such as a drone crash near the White House in January 2015, though the drone operator in that crash voluntarily came forward.

But many drone pilots worried that while the responsible drone owners would register, the people who were irresponsible, uneducated or intending to do something illegal would not register.

“They want to be able to identify the drone operator if there’s an accident or bad use of the drone,” said Colin Snow, founder of drone research firm Skylogic Research said in a past article about drone registration. “But who is going to register their drone and then commit a nefarious act?”

“The entire registration process took an average of 7 minutes,” John Taylor, who was involved in the lawsuit against the FAA about drone registration, said after the ruling. “The FAA used that to show it wasn’t very burdensome, but how much education can really go on in 7 minutes? It’s all bogus.”

A remote identification system could make it harder for drone pilots to avoid registering with the government, while also allowing officials to identify the drone while it’s flying — rather than waiting until it has crashed.

Who is on the drone identification ARC committee?

Members of the committee are broad-based. The list includes aviation groups such as the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). It also includes drone companies like Airmap, PrecisionHawk and the world’s largest drone manufacturer, DJI, as well as drone delivery stakeholders like Amazon Prime Air and X (a division of Google parent company Alphabet, which is working on delivery through Project Wing). The committee also expands to police departments, airports and Fortune 500 companies like Verizon, T-Mobile, Qualcomm and Intel. See the complete list of members here.

What types of solutions for remote drone identification do the big players want?

DJI, maker of the popular Phantom and Inspire lineup of drones, in March announced its proposals for an electronic identification framework for drones.

Under DJI’s plans,  each drone would transmit its location as well as a registration number or similar identification code. DJI said that could be done “using inexpensive radio equipment that is already on board many drones today and that could be adopted by all manufacturers.” Those transmission signals could then be identified by law enforcement and aviation regulators. Read DJI’s entire Whitepaper here.

Much like vehicle license plates, the information about the owner could only be accessible by authorities.

DJI has come out against plans for a system that attempts to track or record the location of all drones in real time. According to a statement from DJI, that sort of system “would be far more complex to develop and would expose the confidential information of drone users.”

uAvionix, a company on the committee that makes GPS receivers, ADS-B receivers and transceivers, and Mode A/C/S transponders, also released a white paper. The company is proposing that the drone has an onboard transmitter and law enforcement would have a receiver working in conjunction with an app to display identification information.

“Low power ADS-B air-to-air transmissions with the aid of low-cost receivers for security personnel and an app for display is the overall best solution,” uAvionix VP of Business Development Christian Ramsey said in a blog post from March 2017. “If ADS-B is a bit of a tricky wicket right now – we can shift to an open frequency – but the concept remains the same.”

AriAscend, an Oregon-based drone services and data company, has also proposed a system of digital license plates similar to existing motor vehicle laws. The company proposed using technology that is “universally accessible” such as Bluetooth,  “so that anyone with a cellphone or Bluetooth enabled handheld device could capture the encrypted digital ID.”

The company added that regulations for accessing personal information should mirror the way the government handles state motor vehicle records.

“That lookup should be limited to authorized users to prevent vigilantism,” AriAscend said in a statement. “Only authorized individuals such as law enforcement should be able to perform any cross referencing and lookup of personal information.”

What is the timeline for the FAA ARC rule-making committee?

The ARC’s next meeting is planned for July 18-19, 2017. The group will submit its recommendations to the FAA by October, and is expected to wrap up its work by November.

What types of details would you like to see ironed out, or rules would you like to see proposed, in the ARC’s reomte identification meetings? Leave a comment below!

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