As a parting gift to show that 2020 wasn’t all bad, the FAA released two long-awaited rules that will help push the drone industry into the future. The FAA’s ultimate goal is to enable routine drone operations in the same airspace as manned aircraft, but a lot of hurdles have to be cleared before that is possible. Like a game of Chutes and Ladders, many small moves and a couple of big ones are required to reach that goal, and along the way, there is an ever-present danger of sliding backwards.
One of the big ladders is remote identification of drones. Brian Wynne, president of the industry’s largest advocacy group, called remote identification “the single most important element in the next evolution of drone integration”. That’s because until now, the only way to identify a drone has been to read the serial number off the outside – clearly not a practical solution, nor one that allows the actual operator of the drone to be identified. This matters, because even if a drone is operating in an unsafe manner, federal laws make it impossible for local law enforcement to take out the drone while in flight, and tracking the drone to its ground control station is very difficult.
When the new remote ID rules take effect, drones will have to broadcast their ID, location, altitude, velocity, and the location of their ground control station. Of course, bad actors can find ways to get around this, but it will greatly expand the ability of law enforcement to handle drone operators who are not malicious, just ignorant or negligent. David Thirtyacre, head of drone flight training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University added, “From our experience with local law enforcement organizations, a large majority of the drone flights they’re responding to are being conducted illegally, like the aircraft not being registered, or flying beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The drone community needs accountability and I see remote identification as a major step in the right direction”.
Overall, the rule has garnered praise from across the industry, including manufacturers like DJI and software providers like Kittyhawk, whose CEO Jonathan Hegranes wrote that the rule is “a license to innovate and create advantages for our enterprise customers and recreational pilots alike”. A dissenting voice was from Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery operation, which called out potential invasions of privacy. “An observer tracking a drone can infer sensitive information about specific users, including where they visit, spend time, and live and where customers receive packages from and when,” Wing asserted in a blog post. Although drone flight paths will be available to all within the broadcast range, the correlation between the ID and its registration will be reserved for the FAA and law enforcement.
The FAA’s second big ladder was the rule to allow commercial night operations and operations over people. Up until now, the only way to fly a drone at night or over people (legally) was by requesting a waiver from the FAA. The FAA will now allow night operations if the operator receives additional training and the aircraft is equipped with exterior lighting. In a tweet, Brendan Shulman, vice president of policy at DJI, commented “There will be lots of attention this week on the new Remote ID and Over-People rules, but the seemingly less-noticed Night Operations rule is how drones will save lives. Many of the 524 rescues on our interactive map are from operations at night.” Operations over people will be permitted if drones meet certain safety requirements designed to minimize impact loads and lacerations from spinning propellers.
The changes won’t go into effect for roughly two years, and several other problems still need to be solved before drones are zipping over your house delivering medicines and pizzas. Most notably, the next big ladder to climb will be enabling drones to routinely fly beyond the visual line of sight of the operator. But so far, 2021 is off to a good start for the drone industry.