Report: FAA Remote ID and the Future of UAS
Drones Safety and Security Concerns
Over the past few years the number of drones in the US has skyrocketed making the low altitude airspace more crowded than ever before. As of 2020 an estimated 7 million drones have been sold in the United States alone with the annual sales rate continuing to rise. Currently any unmanned aircraft under .55 lbs is not required to be registered, licensed, or tracked and those between .55 lbs and 55 lbs are required to be registered only with a small external license number which is difficult to track by law enforcement agencies. This makes it difficult to punish offenders for misuse of the technology and holds users to little accountability.
Most traditional aircraft in the United States are equipped with ADS-B transponders, which can help federal air traffic controllers, and radios that allow pilots to communicate. If a normal airplane were to get in a situation where it encountered another aircraft mid flight, humans could take control and the aircraft can be tracked. Routes are often planned in advance with radar and transponders in use by the planes or a ground controller at all times. If a traditional airplane were to crash or fly in an unauthorized airspace, there is usually an obvious person to blame and information can be easily collected. UAS can pose a danger to people on the ground or near airports since they are usually more maneuverable than larger aircraft and untracked.
There have been two cases where drones have hit flying aircraft. In 2017 a passenger jet with hundreds of people onboard was struck with a drone flying in an unauthorized airspace. Although there were no casualties, similar situations have the potential to be catastrophic depending on the damage from the impact or if the UAS is sucked into an engine. In addition, reports of UAS near airports have caused many flight delays. Aside from airports, drones have also been used to fly over large crowds of people without permits, smuggle narcotics, and weaponized for terrorism. The FAA remains concerned of more potential misuse of the technology to intentionally disrupt critical infrastructure and danger the lives of citizens.
FAA study predicting future UAS registration numbers divided into recreational and commercial categories.
Modern drones can fly by themselves either completely autonomously or by instruction from a user. Under current law this would be illegal without direct oversight by a pilot on the ground but the new legislation aims to allow autonomy on a large scale. Industries like shipping, inspection, surveying, and agriculture are among the many set to benefit. Without remote identification economic and technological opportunities are being limited and safety is more difficult to manage.
FAA Remote ID Overview
The FAA is trying to combat the many problems by categorizing UAS into one of three categories each with different rules and regulations depending on their capability and uses. The goal is to allow the FAA to track drones in real time and ensure they comply with laws and regulations. One drone classification, UAS Without Remote Identification Equipment, relies on sanctioned geographic areas dedicated to free reign UAS airspace without the need for additional hardware. The other two types, Standard and Limited Remote Identification require electronics that communicate with the internet via a Remote ID USS (UAS Service System) provider.
USS / ID
A Remote ID USS provider would be authorized by the FAA under contract to comply with guidelines set by the FAA in order to collect and supply data regarding location of UAS during flight. The rules set for the USS providers would regulate storage, protection, security, and sharing of data without the FAA directly maintaining or developing the underlying technology. The providers would be responsible for sharing UAS identification in real time so other aircraft, users, or planes can know the position of nearby aircraft. They would also have to keep secure records of flight information and share information with the FAA.
Each aircraft interacting with the USS will have a unique serial number generated by the manufacturer or generated based on the ANSI/CTA serial number standard if one is not provided. Users will have the ability to share the serial number directly with the USS provider for identification or use a randomly generated session id for privacy.
UAS between .55 lbs and 55 lbs must also be registered with the FAA online. They collect contact information, legal name, address, device, and serial number so the records can be accessed by law enforcement to locate UAS users if necessary. Any unmanned aircraft weighing more than 55 lbs will be required to obtain a Certificate of Aircraft Registration from the FAA and must be marked with a N number as if it was a traditional aircraft
Standard Remote Identification
A Standard Remote Identification UAS would be required to send real time flight data to a Remote ID USS via the internet as well as broadcast a radio signal from the UAS itself with the same data. The UAS would need to send its serial number, or session ID, time stamp, and the location in latitude, longitude, and altitude of both the aircraft and the ground control station from takeoff to landing. In the event of an emergency, the UAS would also be required to broadcast and send the USS an emergency status symbol to let other nearby aircraft and pilots know of any issues with the flight. If internet is not available then the UAS would only be required to broadcast with radio signal. The UAS will be unable to take off if internet connection is available but the USS will not connect but any failure of broadcasting equipment will require the drone to be landed immediately.
Limited Remote Identification
A Limited Remote Identification UAS is similar to a Standard Remote ID UAS except the aircraft itself does not carry broadcasting equipment and there are additional restrictions in place for flight. These aircraft are still required to connect to a USS via the internet but are only allowed to fly 400 feet away from the control station and have to stay within visual line of sight of a user. The USS also only receives the location of the control station rather than the aircraft. If the drone is not able to connect to the internet then it would not be allowed to take off and must land if connection is lost during flight.
UAS Without Remote Identification
Drones that do not have equipment or capability to interact with a USS are subject to additional regulations. Custom built or older drones fall into this category but presumably newly released UAS would follow the Limited or Standard identification model. These aircraft would only be allowed to operate under one of two circumstances, within an FAA-recognized identification area or if directly approved by the FAA. The FAA-recognized identification areas are defined geographic areas approved by the FAA that allow for flight of unidentified UAS with both the UAS and operator physically within the area throughout flight. The drone would also have to stay within line of sight of the operator. In order to fly outside of one of these areas without identification, the operator would be required to get permission from the FAA for the purpose of research of UAS systems or to test remote ID compliance systems.
Remote ID Compliance
The FAA proposal would require manufacturers to: comply with applicable rules prior to selling products in the United States, oversee development of USS systems, and hold pilots accountable for their actions. Any drone sold in the US that would fall into Standard or Limited Identification categories would have to be approved by the FAA after a manufacturer submits a means of compliance document. To sell these drones, a manufacturer must demonstrate the performance requirements and testing of the applicable systems. The FAA also will set regulations for providers of the USS service. Any organizations capable of providing this service must first be approved by the FAA and enter into a contractual relationship in order to comply with their standards and data requirements. Pilots will also be held accountable with the data from the USS accessible to law enforcement agencies in addition to correlated registration data.
Evaluation of Remote ID Proposal
Currently if a drone flight is close to an airport, above a military base, or in another unauthorized area, detecting its presence would require a specialized radar system or by someone visually spotting it. Even if a UAS is observed, the only way to reasonably locate the pilot is by searching the area or using an expensive piece of equipment made by the drone manufacturer to intercept proprietary communications. Response times to these incidents are slow because locating the operators has been difficult considering the fact many of these UAS have a range of up to a few miles. Counter UAS systems are also in their infancy with defense drones still under development and radio jammers being unreliable and causing unintended side effects.
Drones not only pose dangers to airports, they can also interfere with firefighting, emergency response helicopters, agricultural planes, in addition to their ability to be armed or carry illegal payloads. In one case a UAS interfered with a police helicopter being used in a cliff rescue operation posing significant danger to the copter and the stranded individual. Many firefighting operations have also been interfered with due to drones. In wildfire areas low flying aircraft frequently drop suppressant across large areas to prevent the spread of fire. When UAS operate in these areas it becomes unsafe for fire response crews to use their aircraft. While drones have yet to become widespread as terrorist weapons, multiple cases have been recorded of arming UAS with explosives.
There has been an assassination attempt on the Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro involved an armed drone and an explosive UAS was detonated over a military parade in Yemen. Domestically drones are frequently used in the drug trade to move product across international borders and into prisons. Currently drones are banned above public gatherings and sporting events but this rule has been violated plenty of times as well. One incident left a woman unconscious in 2015 after a drone struck a building above a Seattle parade and fell onto her. These are just some of the countless incidents in which UAS have been used illegally. Reckless operation of this equipment has the potential to cause injury to large numbers of civilians whether directly through terrorism or indirectly by preventing containment of fires. Being able to track individuals that misuse UAS gives law enforcement the ability to prevent damage and hold operators accountable.
There is no doubt that the Remote ID proposal has the potential to minimize safety issues in the future. Had drones been tracked in past incidents, their operators could be located instantly by the FAA and local law enforcement. A simple query of the USS system would be able to provide information over the internet including the location of the UAS and location of the pilot. Assuming drone manufactures and users comply with regulations UAS can be identified in real time allowing prevention of issues before serious problems arise. Using the records from registration law enforcement could also track down suspects involved in any malicious operation.
Air Traffic Control
Using Remote ID means traditional manned aircraft and Federal air traffic controllers will have access to UAS data in order to assist in avoiding collisions. Currently UAS pilots can get authorization to fly in restricted airspace with something called LAANC, an FAA program that uses contracted service providers to give low airspace authorization. The approvals made through this program are transmitted to air traffic control towers where they have the ability to view the operating area of UAS and ensure aircraft do not collide with them. Air traffic control and navigators would also have access to a Remote ID USS in order to identify and mitigate threats before they cause problems. If a drone were to be spotted either in person or via a USS map, security personnel could be dispatched to detain the offender as quickly as possible. Planes could also use the data directly to self-monitor for nearby UAS threats and avoid them.
Opportunities for the future
With the implementation of Remote ID comes many opportunities that further the uses of drones beyond what is currently possible. One of the largest potential applications is the first step towards creating an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system. Similar to how planes are controlled by air traffic control towers, the FAA plans to have an air traffic control system for small unmanned aircraft using more autonomy to prevent collisions and track UAS. Remote ID lays the foundation for this work by setting up a system in which the UAS real time location is uploaded and shared via the internet. The introduction of an air traffic control system would help prevent UAS to UAS mid air collisions and help plan routes more efficiently. Making sure that these operations can be conducted safely is a strong priority for the FAA as increased air traffic comes with an increased risk to everyone below the UAS.
With the introduction of Remote ID and UTM, the applications for commercial drones expands beyond what was previously possible. With fully autonomous flights, industries such as shipping, survey, and agriculture can become larger and more efficient than ever before. Many companies have toyed with the idea of shipping by drone in the US with applications from healthcare to home delivery. When it comes to applications like organ transportation drones have the capability to save not only time, but lives. In addition to shipping, access to information and widespread surveying will likely see a rise due to the introduction of Remote ID. Remote ID paves the way for the possibility of drone fleets and wide scale commercial application. An expansion of this scale will economic growth for not just the technology industry but all industries that benefit from the increased efficiency.
Shortfalls of Remote ID
While the Remote Identification plan may sound like a great idea on paper, the project will be expensive and there are some obstacles that stand in the way of its approval. The planned implementation time for this proposal will likely put a great deal of strain on UAS manufacturers and existing pilots with incompatible systems. Many of the UAS on the market today already pair with a cell phone so they can be modified with software to be compliant with the Limited Remote Identification protocol, however it will take developers time to add these features and complete testing to ensure compliance. After that, the software rollout must be forced in order to make sure pilots are going to operate legally. Many older drones or drones with specialized hardware will either require physical modification to add Limited Remote ID capability or will be unable to meet the standard. For a UAS to be classified as a Standard Remote ID UAS it must also be modified to add the proper transponders and the serial number must be approved by the FAA before compliant flight. All of these changes mean high costs to manufacturers and consumers in order to support existing models. Without any of these changes all of these UAS must be decommissioned or flown only within the boundaries of an FAA approved area.
Aside from existing UAS, new manufactured UAS must be developed with specialized software and hardware that complies with the regulations. Custom transmitter hardware will have to be developed for Standard Remote ID transmission and both Standard and Limited Remote ID ground stations will be required to have some internet connectivity. The costs associated with implementing the new rules will fall on the manufacturers which in turn will pass them along to consumers by raising prices on UAS. The FAA is also not providing regulations on pricing of access to a USS so it is very likely the providers that develop the USS are going to charge UAS users for access. Since Limited and Standard Remote ID both require a connection to the USS, there will be an ongoing recurring costs to use the drone as required. The FAA estimates a charge for this service will be about $30 annually, however, the prices will be set by the organizations providing the USS service.
The cost of this program will also be passed on to taxpayers due to increased FAA staffing and funding required to run the Remote ID program. The FAA estimates the program will cost $582 million over a ten year period accounting for inflation. At around $60 million dollars a year, the cost of the program is significant. This also doesn’t take into account future plans the FAA has to build more infrastructure on top of the Remote ID system.
Feasibility of Remote ID
The FAA Remote ID proposal seems like a great solution to improve safety and generate economic development but there are a few drawbacks and implementation concerns. Remote ID aims to improve public safety in relation to UAS in so many different ways, from allowing tracking for law enforcement to increasing pilot awareness. Overall the solution ensures individual UAS users are held accountable for their actions and greatly improves public safety. The plan also aims to generate economic growth in the technology and UAS sectors as it increases efficiency and productivity. The incredible versatility of these machines combined with automation will open the doors to new uses of UAS and improve the applications already in use. New opportunities will be created with drone fleet management and the FAA will continue to develop programs on top of remote ID. With that being said, the program is going to cost manufacturers, taxpayers, and UAS users hundreds of millions of dollars and will take time. With limited time to add compliance to existing UAS and develop new models that meet the standards is an enormous task. It will be harder for new companies and UAS developers to enter the market.
Just because it is passed into law also doesn’t mean that UAS users will comply. The materials and hardware to build drones from scratch is available with open source plans and software so anyone can still custom build a drone and fly illegally. Any drone that is not outfitted to comply with the new rules could be used illegally and it would be difficult to detect since it requires observing it in-person. Realistically anyone who wanted to avoid using a USS would not have a hard time obtaining an aircraft that can operate without it despite the laws and regulations. Although most will likely adopt the new rules, not every UAS will end up in full compliance.
The reality is that there is no perfect solution to this problem because it would be impossible to monitor the entire United States airspace within a reasonable budget. With that being said, the FAA is taking many steps in the right direction to improve safety and spur technological growth.
Remote ID not only seeks to improve efficiency of domestic airspace, it sets a precedent and demonstrates a real world test of how identification technology can streamline operations and improve efficiency. Maybe in coming years we will see Remote ID become an example for international powers to regulate their airspace or as an example for government regulations in other industries as autonomy begins to dominate the transportation industry.
ADS-B - Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast
UAS – Unmanned Aerial System
USS – UAS Service Supplier
UTM – Unmanned Traffic Management