“Who goes there?” – Remote ID explained
The freedom of the sky is a wonderful thing, but unlike birds, our flying machines have to follow rules.
By September 2023 in the US and January 2024 in the EU, all drones over 250 grams will have to automatically and continuously identify themselves to the world. The requirement is called Remote ID. The new laws are a technical challenge because they require drones to have additional transmission capabilities, including retrofitting older models, and they raise an interesting question about privacy rights.
What information exactly do drones have to share?
Remote ID means that every unmanned aerial vehicle of 250g and above must broadcast its unique identity number, latitude, longitude, altitude and velocity. It must also reveal the exact position of the control station/takeoff location, or in other words, the location of the operator. When the FAA announced the new rules, many in the drone community reacted negatively, including one high-profile (and unsuccessful) lawsuit.
How is the information sent?
There are two ways that a drone can broadcast the necessary information - by cellular signal (net-RID), or via Bluetooth/WiFi (broadcast). Both methods have their pros and cons. In some cases, compliance can be reached by submitting a flight plan before operation. This is applicable when flying within pre-approved areas, and in cases where the nature of a mission could mean that broadcasting capability is lost, such as inspecting an electrical tower or inside a tunnel.
It's important to note that both the FAA and EASA’s Remote ID regulations only require drones to have broadcast-based Remote ID – net-RID is optional.
It might seem a strange idea to use Bluetooth/WiFi to detect drones from the ground, because to most people Bluetooth and WiFi are purely close-range connections. However, Bluetooth technology has been around since 1998 and there’s more than one type - Bluetooth 5 is ideally suited to Remote ID because it can transmit to around a kilometer. One test even demonstrated a range of almost three kilometers.
Broadcast Remote ID is a direct method that doesn’t require supporting infrastructure to send its advertisements - it just broadcasts its data into the air for anyone to catch – which is a big advantage. However, Bluetooth/WiFi ranges are relatively limited, signals can be weakened by terrain and bad weather, and reception is reliant on the quality of the receiver.
Network-based Remote ID means that the drone sends the data via a standard cellular signal. Like any data sent by a cellphone, the signal is picked up by the nearest tower before being sent to the observer via a service provider, such as a UTM system.
The advantage of this method is that it piggybacks on pre-existing phone tower infrastructure, which covers over 96% of the globe. But this is also the root of the disadvantage. 96% is an impressive number, but we all know that there are always places where mobile coverage is patchy. In addition, mobile reception for drones is often poorer than for phones because tower receivers are aimed downwards, not at the sky.
These connectivity issues, as well as the financial burden put on drone operators who would need their drones to be constantly connected, led both the FAA and the EASA to remove net-RID as a requirement.
Covering all bases
Drone manufacturers are now building their vehicles with Remote ID capability built in, and you can also purchase a lightweight broadcast module to clip onto your drone. To be safe, it’s best to go with a solution that provides both net-RID and broadcast; the law doesn’t see equipment failure as an excuse, and drones are expected to land themselves at the first safe opportunity if their Remote ID fails mid-flight.
In 2022, the CEO of a drone racing company sued the FAA over the new rule. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but it does highlight an interesting issue: is it fair to expect drone operators to reveal their locations? The FAA itself officially noted an avalanche of comments and survey results from people unhappy with this requirement. People complained that it would put them at personal risk from members of the public who are hostile to drones, and also that giving people the ability to track other peoples’ deliveries is a violation of privacy. As a result of the feedback, the FAA modified its initial proposal which would have allowed anyone to cross-check Remote ID data with the national registry of drone operators. Now, registry information is accessible only to the FAA and authorized law enforcement agencies upon request.
On the other hand, most major drone suppliers are in favor of the new rules. There are well over a million drones registered already in the US alone, and drones can be a privacy and safety hazard if used irresponsibly. It’s reasonable to expect authorities to want the ability to identify drones and their operators before BVLOS and urban operations are permitted on a large scale. Indeed, this seems to be the purpose of the regulation; Steve Dickson, FAA Administrator, said: “The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns. They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”
Vision of the future
We dream of a world where drones are an everyday sight, and for that to happen they must first gain the trust of the public and the authorities. This can’t happen if there are drones flying around that nobody can identify. High Lander’s Universal UTM is Remote-ID compatible, catching both net-RID and broadcast Remote ID data and translating it to the Universal UTM interface for everyone to see. Remote ID is essential for Universal UTM to provide comprehensive oversight of drone fleets in a given region, so for us, the regulations are a necessary step towards an exciting future of fully integrated sky traffic.