After the catastrophic fire in the Grenfell apartment block in west London last month, London’s Fire Brigade used a drone to help inspect the damage and search for survivors near the top of the tower.
In the shadow of a tragedy, it was at least a refreshing change to see a positive story about drones being used for good. Normally drones and fires don’t mix so well. There are plenty of reports of them getting in the way of emergency services attempting to put out forest fires, for example. They have also been known to smuggle contraband into prisons from above and come dangerously close to commercial aircraft.
Those are just some examples of rogue pilot behavior, which pushed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make drone registration mandatory back in 2015. The legality of that registration rule has been challenged in recent weeks, but even so, it still has a major flaw.
The flaw is that forcing pilots to register their drone is no use if you can’t read the registration. It will have put off a number of would-be rogue pilots, but those who are intent on, for example, prison deliveries, know that all they have to do is not get caught.
This is because you can only read the registration of a drone if it’s been captured. Otherwise, it’s just a blip in the sky potentially flying miles away from its operator.
This problem has convinced the FAA to search for solutions; for a way to read a drone’s registration from a distance. So far that search is at a very early stage. Between June 21-23 the UAS Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) had its first meeting. In that meeting it considered issues “such as existing regulations applicable to drone identification and tracking, air traffic management for drones, concerns and authorities of local law enforcement, and potential legal considerations.”
According to an FAA statement the group “developed some preliminary questions and identification parameters, and reviewed a sample of existing identification technologies.”
Are remote registration checks a step towards drone air traffic control?
The notion of “existing identification technologies” suggests that the FAA is thinking about some kind of air traffic control system. NASA is currently testing such a system, which will be put forward to the FAA in 2019 as a potential traffic management solution for drones.
However, before any kind of remote registration-reading system can be effective, a database of users needs to be put together.
Ultimately regulators will need the assistance of manufacturers. Especially industry giants such as DJI.
In March, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) began an industry-wide search for potential identification systems for drones. DJI was one of the 45 companies to offer a proposal, suggesting that drones could transmit their location and registration number via radio equipment.
At the time, DJI’s VP of policy and legal affairs, Brendan Schulman, said that “DJI understands that accountability is a key part of responsible drone use, and we have outlined a proposal that balances the privacy of drone operators with the legitimate concerns authorities have about some drone operations.”
“This is another example of how the UAS industry is innovating solutions to emerging concerns, and we look forward to working with other stakeholders on how to implement the best possible system.”
Proper enforcement is a matter of time
There’s not much point in requiring drones to be registered if all it means is a tiny number written onto the base of your Phantom. That will help officials find pilots in the result of a crash, but it won’t stop criminal activity altogether. That much is obvious.
As commercial applications ranging from delivery to agriculture gain more traction, a comprehensive air traffic control system that identifies drones from a distance is only a matter of time.