Cars have license plates, so why not drones? For starters, a teeny license plate on a drone flying hundreds of feet in the air isn’t very easy to read.
Instead, the drone industry for years has been calling for some means of remote identification — a way to electronically tell (from the ground) what drones are flying overhead.
And in December, three companies came together to prove a system of electronically identifying drones overhead.
Project Wing, the drone division of X (the company formerly known as Google), alongside Kittyhawk and AirMap joined together at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, Calif. on Dec. 17, 2018 to test a system of identifying drones that share their flight information through the LTR network.
Each of the three companies flew their own drones for various purposes (naturally, Project Wing conducted a drone delivery) — and each of the drone operators successfully knew which drones were flying nearby.
To do that, they used an open source program intended to allow third parties to identify drones near them, called InterUSS. InterUSS was developed by Project Wing.
Here’s the idea behind InterUSS:
- Your drone is connected to software from one of the three Remote ID service providers (ie. Kittyhawk or AirMap).
- When a concerned citizen or key stakeholder sees a drone nearby, they can pull up an app that interfaces with the InterUSS platform.
- That person is able to see who’s operating near them and a brief summary of what they’re doing regardless if they’re Wing or an operator using Kittyhawk or AirMap.
During the flight, each of the three companies shared their telemetry data, each using their own native application.
Kittyhawk provided TheDroneGirl with exclusive footage showing how it played out:
On top of that, the flight site was near San Francisco International Airport — thus controlled, Class B airspace. That also meant that operators had to use LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), another recent FAA development in the same vein, that allows drone operators to get instant approval to fly in restricted airspace (where it is otherwise illegal to fly).
Where does Remote ID go from here?
The Federal Aviation Administration has recently suggested that increased efforts towards building up Remote ID are on its agenda.
The FAA in December 2018 put out a RFI (Request for information) around remote identification, seeking private companies to participate in research and eventually demonstrations of Remote ID for drones at work. (RFIs are fairly standard practice in the FAA as they seek help from private companies or universities to submit their own information, research and data on various topics).
The FAA said it anticipates selecting up to 8 companies to participate in its Remote ID test project (companies have until Feb. 4, 2019 to apply).
But these three companies have already proven it works (Kittyhawk founder Josh Ziering confirmed that his company intended to apply to participate in the RFI).
“We thought it was important to demonstrate that this in production, and to show that private industry is leading the way,” Ziering said.
December’s test results, coupled with the impending progress following the FAA’s RFI, could be what it takes to allow for more widespread, legal drone use in the U.S. Drone operations have been limited for a range of reasons (safety, interference with other aircraft, etc.), but knowing what drones are in the air, who is operating them and where they are headed could remove one major hurdle in why drone applications like package delivery haven’t taken off as quickly as some had expected.
Could InterUSS (or other open-source software) be the ultimate solution?
Many industry leaders have come out in support of some sort of solution along the lines of the InterUSS project that was demonstrated in December.
“Open source software is a critical tool to creating interoperability and enabling the transparency that prevents bad actors from exploiting power consolidation when a single entity is in charge of a piece of software,” Ziering said. “The ability for multiple parties to scrutinize, collaborate, and work on solutions together without the overhead of office politics, bureaucracies and shipping schedules creates a level of security proprietary based software solutions would be hard pressed to meet.”
Even though it was built by Google’s Project Wing, something like InterUSS would be funded and managed by a collaboration of private companies.
That being said, other players, including drone manufacturer DJI have also proposed systems of drone identification — and some conflict at least partially with what was demonstrated in San Bruno last month.
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 2017 statement from DJI, that sort of system “would be far more complex to develop and would expose the confidential information of drone users.”
Under DJI’s plans, each drone would transmit its location as well as a registration number or similar identification code in a system 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. But unlike the project demonstrated by Google in December, DJI has suggested that their information would only be accessible by authorities. Read DJI’s entire Whitepaper here.
DJI’s white paper refers to a network-based approach as an “Orwellian model” that provides “more information than needed to people who don’t require it, and exposes confidential business information in the process.”
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.
But the InterUSS approach could indicate that perhaps a network-based system isn’t as complicated as thought.
“(Network-based remote identification) doesn’t require any special hardware, it allows multiple parties to both consume and populate the data, and with the power of technologies like LTE and the forthcoming 5G, it will be readily accessible to the largest amount of people with the smallest amount of overhead,” Ziering said.