Thoughts on Remote Identification of Drones

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US has proposed requiring drones and their operators to remotely identify their drones during flight operations. This requirement would require upgrades to at least the software on board the drones and the controllers, and may also require new hardware in new drones to be fully compliant.

They are concerned with the rapid increase in the number of drones flying in the US, in particular the growth of commercial drones for delivery and other operations. Airspace is going to become very congested at low levels and they want to be able to oversee it, and presumably identify any “bad actors”.

The proposal suggests three classes of remote identification capability for UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which includes both the drone and the controller):

  1. Standard Remote Identification UAS – both the drone and the controller broadcast;
  2. Limited Remote Identification UAS – the controller broadcasts; and
  3. UAS without Remote Identification Equipment – limited to line-of-sight flights in certain areas only.

The drone and controller would broadcast several items continuously:

  • Drone serial number, or session ID*
  • Latitude and longitude of the drone and the control station
  • Barometric pressure and altitude of the drone and the control station
  • Universal Time timestamp
  • Status (normal/emergency)

* the session ID is a random number generated at the start of flight and is a unique identifier for the flight. This is done to provide privacy for the operator rather than broadcasting the drone’s serial number for everyone to record.

The FAA would require drone operators to register each drone’s serial number individually.

My Thoughts

I think this is inevitable, given the number of drones that are forecast to fly in the US. As of the end of 2019 there were 1.5 million drones registered in the US (just over 1 million of those were recreational) with 160,000 drone pilots certified. The FAA projects a tripling of the commercial fleet by 2023 (to about 835,000 drones).

I imagine the main concern of the FAA is that these commercial drones will be concentrated in major cities, so there could be thousands of commercial drones airborne at any time in Chicago or Los Angeles. Managing that level of traffic with existing air traffic control systems isn’t really possible.

They ruled out using ADS-B transmission, the current way that airplanes transmit their position, because they believe that drones would saturate the spectrum. It’s also well known that ADS-B is insecure and easily spoofed.

It remains to be seen how this will be implemented. The FAA is proposing outsourcing the local collection of the data to external organizations, and somehow that information will be shared with local law enforcement and air traffic controllers.

Some drones, like DJI’s, already broadcast their location, speed, heading and serial numbers. Complying with this regulation would be relatively simple for modern drones.

And Canada?

There has been no indication from Transport Canada that they are considering a similar regulation. However, it is likely that they would implement something similar if the FAA goes ahead with this plan.