This April, new US drone regulations went into effect. While “Remote Identification”—or Remote ID—may sound dry, the rule will have far-reaching impacts on American skies.
Remote ID will have a tiered rollout that requires:
- Manufacturers to build broadcasting capabilities into drones, as of this September. This effectively creates a digital, real-time license plate system for drones.
- Drones to broadcast a unique identifier number and details about the drone’s orientation, starting in September 2022.
The rule, which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) called “a major step toward the full integration of drones into the national airspace system,” will pave the way for drone delivery at scale. Eventually, an order-of-magnitude more Americans may regularly engage with drones as a result of it.
But Remote ID, especially in its earlier incarnation, was not a welcome change for the groups who most passionately know and use drones. Here, we’ll look at how the rule came to be. What did it take for Uncle Sam and hobbyist fliers, RC enthusiasts, and consumer drone makers to reach a (partial) truce?
A heated tug-of-war
Years ago, an alphabet soup of three-letter Washington agencies (FAA, DHS, etc.) decided the government needed a game plan for drones and their rapidly advancing technological capabilities. The government said it wouldn’t greenlight beyond-line-of-sight flights in congested airspace until it knew more. Namely: Who’s flying what?
A new rulemaking process was born, one that would put in place technologies that could eventually lead to the safe integration of commercial drone networks in US airspace. The FAA contracted out some development work to eight companies—Airbus, AirMap, Amazon, Intel, One Sky, Skyward, T-Mobile, and Wing.
The presence of telco players on the list—and the wording of an earlier draft of the Remote ID proposal—suggested a cellular connection for compliance. A mobile data subscription would be expensive and cumbersome for hobbyist fliers, first-person view (FPV) pilots, and DIY enthusiasts. For the average pilot, it could make aircraft unflyable unless he or she is operating in an FAA-approved area.
As Ars Technica bluntly put it last February, the draft Remote ID proposal was “a giant middle finger to aviation hobbyists.”
Reminder: In the US, the rulemaking process typically takes years. Remote ID was no different. The first official proposal hit the Federal Register on December 31, 2019.
In January 2020, DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker, came out swinging against the proposed rule. “Unfortunately,” DJI wrote at the time, “the FAA’s vision of Remote ID released late last month is deeply flawed.”
Around the same time, the most comprehensive rebuttal to the rule that we’ve seen came from Greg Reverdiau, cofounder and lead instructor at the Pilot Institute, which helps aspiring operators get unmanned aerial systems (UAS) licenses and airplane pilot licenses.
- The proposed Remote ID rule “will dramatically change how and where people can fly their drones if it’s implemented,” Reverdiau wrote.
- “It will eliminate a large portion of the FPV market, potentially permanently ground older drones, prevent people from flying their drones in numerous places, destroy privacy, and increase the cost to own and operate drones.”
Predictably…When the FAA advanced the proposed rule to the public comment phase, it was flooded with feedback. Over 53,000 individuals and groups wrote in. The majority of these comments, we can only assume, came from enthusiast flyers.
Rock, meet hard place
The government doesn’t want to be flying blind. Even today, counter-drone systems lag behind what off-the-shelf UAS are capable of. The reality is that there’s no silver bullet to intercept, or, if necessary, forcibly take down a drone that’s flying where you don’t want it to be. But knowing more info about each flight is a huge improvement over the status quo.
In its final ruling, announced at the end of 2020, the US government ultimately walked back some of the more unwieldy and draconian stipulations for its 21st century drone license plate system. A couple notable changes:
- Drones won’t need a mobile network connection to be compliant with Remote ID.
- In great news for privacy-conscious Americans and libertarians everywhere, the final rule scrapped requirements that more sensitive flight data and personally identifiable information be stored in government databases.
“I was actually very surprised with what the FAA published in the final ruling,” Reverdiau told the Brew. “I think it was overall a fair compromise.” He estimates that a Remote ID module will cost $20–$30 to add to a drone, and weigh 5–7 grams.
- “I don’t think it will reduce the number of people interested in the hobby,” Reverdiau said.
- His sole outstanding qualm is that the location of the pilot will be shared with the public, “which I think is a terrible idea that will lead to pilots getting harassed or possibly worse.”
Even Wing, the Alphabet drone delivery unit assisting with the build-out of Remote ID, criticized this component of the final version. The broadcast RID methods stipulated by the rule could be intercepted by anyone with an internet connection, which would have ominous privacy implications for pilots, Wing noted.
And what says the world’s largest drone maker? Well, it came around to the new version of Remote ID.
“DJI has always supported the development of Remote ID to help solve safety and security challenges posed by drones,” Brendan Schulman, DJI VP of Policy & Legal Affairs, told the Brew. While some tech spec and requirements are still being worked out, Schulman said, DJI anticipates upgrading its product lineup in phases and is aiming for all of its future drones to be in compliance with Remote ID.