Last May Michael Huerta, the Administrator of the FAA, issued a charter to establish a committee to assess and make a recommendation with regard to rules that would determine how commercial and consumer drones can be tracked and identified. This is a crucial regulatory step that is required for the industry to advance.
Why It Matters
Drone operators need to be accountable. If you are moving an object through space you need to be responsible for it. Planes, trains, and automobiles all need to be registered and their operators licensed. A reliable system for monitoring and permitting will allow for broader use of drones in a wider range of applications. And that takes into account, unlike planes, trains, and automobiles, the fact that drone operators are remote.
The implementation of such a policy is a critical component in the ongoing effort to put a UTM (unmanned traffic management) in place that will fully integrate drones into the national airspace and enable such critical business cases and flying drones beyond visual line of sight, flying at night, flying over dense populations etc.
While commercial uses are restricted in some ways; drones are proliferating. And with their growing use, security and privacy concerns escalate and potential abuse grows. If law enforcement is notified of a potential violation how do they reliably identify the offender?
What the Tracking ARC Was Tasked to Do And Where It Stands
The tracking ARC was tasked to make recommendations on how drones could be tracked. Specifically, identify emerging technologies for remote identification and tracking; identify requirements for meeting the security needs of law enforcement agencies (e.g. Police Depts, Homeland Security); and, lastly, evaluating how the technologies map to the needs of law enforcement and traffic control.
So good so far. But then reality set in. The charter states that “membership is limited to promote discussion,” where limited resulted in appointing 74 members. The list includes but is not limited to the Airline Pilots Association, Airmap, AT&T, BNSF Railway, Ford, the NYC Police Department, Amazon (of course) and on it goes. You can find the full list here.
The charter was issued on May 5th and called for this committee of 74 to submit its findings by October 31.
It sounds like this went about as you might expect. They could not come to agreement.
The Wall Street Journal reported that:
In a potentially serious setback for expanded commercial-drone operations, a federal advisory panel has failed to agree on proposals to identify and track unmanned aircraft nationwide.
The FAA panel’s breakdown is a setback for the industry, which is experiencing rapid growth but still largely prevented from flying devices over people or beyond the sight of an operator.
We confirmed this to be the case (i.e. there was not unanimity), however, in our opinion characterizing it as a serious setback may be a bit of an overstatement. To think 74 organizations with differing agendas, goals, and needs were going to come to a unanimous solution in a period of 5 months is naïve and unrealistic. Members of the committee are prohibited from speaking about the session or findings. While there may not be unanimity; the more critical question is how wide is the disagreement and among how many of the members?
In response to an email to the FAA asking if the the findings, recommendation of the group would be published and if there is a timeline for that? The FAA wrote, “The ARC is open until the end of October. The FAA is currently evaluating policy options in response to the ARC report.”
How AeroScope Fits In
Aeroscope is a solution for remote tracking being proposed by DJI, the Chinese drone manufacturer. In March of this year DJI issued a white paper,”What’s In A Name?” A Call for a Balanced Remote Identification Approach, in which they outlined considerations for a “balanced” approach to tracking.
Unlike manned aircraft, automobiles, mobile telephones with cameras, and other imaging devices, drones are remotely operated. In many cases, particularly in jurisdictions limiting operations to visual line of sight, the operator is near the unmanned aircraft while in flight and it is not difficult to locate her. In some instances, she is not. In those instances, if the operator is actually doing something that everyone would readily agree is unlawful, there is an accountability challenge. Remote identification, properly and reasonably deployed, could significantly help to address that challenge.
. . .
The balanced approach that we propose to solving safety, security, and accountability concerns while taking into account operator privacy and safety, is to create an identification mechanism that provides localized identification without permanent recording or logging. Remote UAS identification then becomes analogous to an enhanced version of a car license plate. An identifier, such as a registration number, together with position information about the drone, and perhaps some voluntary information if the operator wishes, is transmitted from the drone, and is available to all receivers that are within range.
And then, last week, they put their money where their mouth was and announced Aeroscope. We covered that announcement here and a good analysis of the announcement can be found on Fstoppers here. In a nutshell, Aeroscope takes advantage of the command and control link that exists with all drones. The notion is that a stand alone receiver could capture these packets and their information and enable a police officer for example to identify who is flying a drone in violation of a law or regulation.packets that are sent from the drone.
As the article at Fstopper concludes:
The AeroScope system is a simple, clever, cost-effective, and efficient solution to track and identity drones in restricted areas. No need for complex detection technologies since every drone transmits all the data needed to find it.
That sounds about right.
In a conversation with Adam Lisberg, the US Corporate Communications Director for DJI, about AeroScope he confirmed that the protocol used by DJI is a common one that would be available to any vendor and could be incorporated with a firmware update.
Whether this is the best solution or not, we don’t know. We do know it is worth a hard look. It could open markets , improve safety, and be a first step.
The inertia of the government coupled with the hysteria of some regarding DJI’s parentage (ie China) is baffling and at times nonsensical. Enthusiasts have a serious and legitimate concern over their drones being tracked and they data being stored. It sounds like this system could meet the needs of law enforcement and allay those concerns.
So in reality a widely diverse group of 74 organizations and companies discussed the issue. We do not know how they voted other than it was not unanimous. That in our minds does not equate to a setback until we learn what the FAA is going to do. It rests with them. AeroScope is one proposed solution that looks exceptionally promising. All that feels like progress.