FAA remote ID requirements hold promise, peril for journalists

Following two delays in 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally published at year’s end its tentative plan to require in-the-air, live identification for all but the smallest drones. As RJI reported late last year, these electronic drone “license plates” will provide identification information about all drones in the air at any given time.  And now, we know just how much identification our drones will transmit.

The 87-page proposed rule, entitled “Remote Identification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” requires both professional and amateur drones (or unmanned aircraft systems, otherwise known as “UAS”) weighing more than .55 pounds to transmit a digital identification signal. The rule defines two ways that digital ID will reach its intended users. With a standard remote identification system UAS, the digital ID goes out on the internet and through radio frequency broadcast. In certain flights within 400 feet of the remote pilot, the drone can be a limited identification system UAS, transmitting its digital ID only on the internet.

The ID will take the form of either the FAA-registered serial number of the drone or a unique session ID assigned by the third-party Remote ID UAS service supplier (USS) that will receive the digital IDs and transmit them to the FAA and the public. The digital ID will also give the drone’s latitude and longitude, as well as the latitude and longitude of the drone pilot; it will show the barometric pressure at the drone and pilot’s location for purposes of determining altitude; it will give a time stamp; and it will report any emergency conditions that exist for the drone, such as a loss of signal between pilot and aircraft.

The Remote ID USS operators would be private contractors authorized by the FAA to gather and distribute this information. The current Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) uses private entities in this way to authorize drone flights in restricted airspace around airports. Drone app companies seem likely to pick up this responsibility once the rule is implemented.

The Remote ID USS operators will make the digital IDs available to the FAA in “near real-time,” with the companies required to provide that data to the public as well. Privacy concerns prompted the FAA to come up with the session ID concept so that the public would not be able to directly identify the operators of drones in the air. The FAA will be able to see each user and will be able to share that information with law enforcement, the military and other security entities.

As for its promise, the proposed rule has plenty for journalists to cheer. The unmanned skies have a taste of the Wild West right now. Though the FAA has rules that call for the registration of most drones, there’s little the agency can do to police all flyers. Drones are small, so there’s no way to identify them from the ground. Bad actors can fly unregistered drones with almost no way to be caught. Not only does the proposed rule still require registration for commercial drones and their pilots—the category into which journalists fall—but it will also require hobby flyers to register their drones individually, rather than allowing them to register all their drones under just one number.

The 87-page proposed rule, entitled “Remote Identification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” requires both professional and amateur drones (or unmanned aircraft systems, otherwise known as “UAS”) weighing more than .55 pounds to transmit a digital identification signal.

A digital license plate beaming from each drone will have much the same effect as the metal ones do hanging from our cars. We behave better as drivers because everyone on the road knows who we are. This goes beyond the threat of action from the authorities. Pilots who tend to bend—or outright break—the rules now should be reluctant to do so once they can be easily identified. Those commonly-broken rules include flying above the ceiling set by the FAA for drones (400 feet above ground level), flying after dark without FAA approval, flying out of the pilot’s line of sight, flying in unauthorized airspace or flying over people. As professionals flying our drones to report stories, we play by the rules. Now the playing field will be level for everyone.

Perhaps the best thing about this proposed rule is that if clears the way to eliminate a few of those restrictions I just mentioned. The FAA has made it clear that changing the regulations so that it’s clear who’s in the air at any given time is necessary before it will begin to ease some restrictions in place now. Having enough information to paint a complete picture of the UAS landscape will put the wheels in motion to make additional changes. 

The FAA has specifically mentioned allowing flights out of line of sight of the pilot and over crowds of people.  The former is essential for any commercial delivery services to be viable. If you want an Amazon drone to drop that new PS4 on your porch someday, it will have to be using a drone that is controlled from some distant point.  Line of sight operation is a deal-killer for drone commerce. Clearing this requirement would also extend the range of news drones trying to get footage at a distance, over obstacles and in crowded urban settings. Likewise, allowing drones to fly over people (perhaps equipped with parachutes) would open up news coverage of events for which we have to stay grounded now.

The peril of this new plan comes from how the data of who’s flying will be handled. As journalists, we should applaud the public nature of the rule’s commitment to provide anonymized flight data to the public. All of us have a right to know what the FAA is regulating, and the agency has done well to include consumer-level data delivery in the rule. But journalists have operated their drones with broad anonymity up to this point, allowing us a virtual hidden camera in the sky at times. Commercial competitive security is maintained by the proposed rule as our competitors will not have access to logs of where we fly, thus keeping our working stories a secret until we are ready to publish them. But law enforcement, homeland security and the military will have access to our flight records. The potential for those entities to know the movement of journalistic drones and to act to prevent their flights seems to be a real possibility with the rule as written.

Beyond that threat, it’s unclear if the rise of technology to jam or disable drones in flight will be helped or hampered by this proposed rule. Right now, the tech affects all drones in the area in which it is deployed. There would be a real threat to journalism if those with jamming technology—including those motivated by ideological hatred of journalists—can target certain drones in the air based on their FAA registration or session IDs.  

The proposed rule is now in a 60-day comment period during which interested parties can give opinions and request changes to the rule. After that deadline, the FAA can amend the rule or move forward with implementation.  The timetable calls for a three-year rollout of the rule following its effective date during which drone operators must get make sure their aircraft are compliant. That means by around the beginning of 2023, we could be reading those electronic license plates for all the drones around which we fly.

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