Drones must be constantly connected to the internet to give Feds real-time location data – new US govt proposal

Drone enthusiasts are up in arms over rules proposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would require their flying gizmos to provide real-time location data to the government via an internet connection.

The requirement, for drones weighing 0.55lb (0.25kg) or more, would ground an estimated 80 per cent of gadgets in the United States, and many would never be able to fly again because they couldn’t be retrofitted with the necessary equipment, say drone owners. Those that did buy new drones would need to buy a monthly data plan for their flying machines: something that would likely cost $35 or more a month, given extortionate US mobile rates.

There are also additional costs of running what would need to be new location databases of drones, which the FAA expects will be run by private companies but doesn’t exist yet, which drones owners would have to pay for through subscriptions. The cost of all this is prohibitive, for little real benefit, they argue.

If a device loses internet connectivity while flying, and can’t send its real-time info, it must land. It may be possible to pair a drone control unit with, say, a smartphone or a gateway with fixed-lined internet connectivity, so that the drone can relay its data to the Feds via these nodes. However, that’s not much use if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, or if you wander into a wireless not-spot.

Nearly 35,000 public comments have been received by the FAA, with the comment period closing later today. The vast majority of the comments are critical and most make the same broad point: that the rules are too strict, too costly and are unnecessary.

The world’s largest drone maker, DJI, is among those fighting the rule change, unsurprisingly enough. The manufacturer argues that while it agrees that every drone should have its own unique ID, the FAA proposal is “complex, expensive and intrusive.”

It would also undermine the industry own remote ID solution that doesn’t require a real-time data connection but utilizes the same radio signals used to control drones to broadcast ID information. It also flags that the proposed solution has privacy implications: people would be able to track months of someone’s previous drone usage.

Car analogy

“Everyone understands why cars need license plates: drivers have to be accountable,” DJI argues. “But what if instead of just a license plate, your car was also legally required to be connected via the internet to a privately run car-tracking service that charged you an annual fee of about 20 per cent of your car’s value, and stored six months of your driving data for government scrutiny? Would you think the government had gone too far?”

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For its part, the FAA says it is following recommendations put to it by a special committee – called the Remote ID Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). “The ARC recommended the FAA adopt an industry standard for data transmission, which may need to be created, to ensure unmanned aircraft equipment and public safety receivers are interoperable,” the FAA notes in its rules. It later states: “The FAA agrees that requiring the broadcasting of messages directly from the unmanned aircraft and the transmission of messages over the internet is an appropriate approach because it provides a more complete picture of unmanned aircraft in the airspace of the United States.”

It rejects the drone industry’s standard where radio rather than cellular data is used to broadcast IDs because, it argues, “public safety officials may not be able to equip with receivers for all possible direct broadcast technologies.” Under the radio plan, officials would use a receiver to pick up the radio signals but would need to physically be in the area. Under its current plan, those government officials could sit in offices thousands of miles away (or in the field) and watch drone traffic through their browsers.

But, DJI and others argue, the FAA has actually ignored its own ARC team and similar teams across the globe by insisting that the cellular solution is the only one that can be allowed: all recommendations up to this point have argued that both radio or cellular approaches are acceptable.

“ARC produced a final report that did not recommend mandatory internet-based services,” says DJI. “Rather, the consensus recommendation was for drones flying under existing FAA rules to perform Remote ID via a radio broadcast, with network solutions an optional alternative.” Moreover it notes: “Aviation officials in Europe, who also weigh the aviation safety and terrorism risks of drones, agree with that assessment.”

Balance

And it says that while “it is not an easy task to balance all the interests involved in protecting innovation while addressing security and safety concerns,” by pushing the cellular-network approach the FAA had “disregarded without sufficient explanation” the radio solution.

A similar length critique of the FAA’s plan has been posted by drone enthusiast organization the Pilot Institute. It has been encouraging its members to write to the FAA pointing out concerns, and they have seemingly obliged.

“The FAA’s proposal for Remote ID will dramatically change how and where people can fly their drones if it’s implemented,” a blog post on the Pilot Institute’s website reads. “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. Right now, we have the opportunity to leave a comment to the FAA and hopefully get it changed.”

It rejects numerous parts of the FAA’s plan, noting as well that significant parts of the US do not have cellular coverage and so drones would be effectively banned from those areas.

And while many imagine the issue of drones to be people spying on neighbors, or disrupting airports by flying into flight paths, the Pilot Institute tells a different story: of drone owners being attacked and abused by members of the public while doing nothing wrong and, in one case, while looking for a missing dog. It also warns that under the FAA plan where the location of the pilot is also made public, it would give “thieves a way to target drone pilots with expensive equipment and mug them.”

It breaks down the cost of the proposed approach: $2.50 a month for the data connection; $35+ a month for a data plan; $75 a year registration fee – meaning that before even taking to the skies, a drone operator would have to pay at least $500 a year. Per drone. Most enthusiasts have several.

Airport fears

As to what is driving the FAA’s approach, it appears to be focused intently on the biggest and most publicized problem of drones: flying into commercial airspace. The FAA rules make repeat and length mentions of the various global disruption to airline traffic that drones – or rather supposed sightings of – have caused in recent years, particularly at Gatwick in London. But also Dubai, Dublin, and Frankfurt.

In October 2018, the FAA gave itself permission to shoot down any drone it wants in response to the airport disruptions. It is also concerned that Americans’ love of guns and weapons will cause them to do idiotic things to drones, emailing drone owners last year to remind them that “it is illegal to operate a drone with a dangerous weapon attached.”

While those fears are real and understandable, the Pilot Institute points out that if someone does want to cause disruption, all they would have to do it disable the very functions that the FAA is insisting on to go unnoticed. Instead, the rules are punishing the most responsible drone flyers in an effort to target the least responsible.

And, as one drone hobbyist that we choose at random from the 34,000+ comments noted: “Model aviation is the natural precursor to careers in aviation, including commercial pilots and engineers and more jobs which the US desperately needs to fill. Model aviation supports a $1 billion hobby industry responsible for thousands of existing US jobs. We simply cannot afford to further harm the model aviation hobby with overly burdensome requirements.” ®

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