USDOT Publishes Proposed Rule on Remote ID for Drones
In the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) world, nothing has been more critical to public policy than Remote ID. This system would enable (and require) UAS to transmit their location and identity, enabling traffic management, allowing flights beyond visual line of sight, and conveying vital information to other aircraft as well as safety and security officials – serving the same overall purpose as the transponders in manned aircraft. But agreeing on a framework that is both technically feasible and has a reasonable cost has been elusive. Finally, after several delays, the U.S. Department of Transportation quietly published its proposed rule for UAS remote identification on December 26.
The full rule is lengthy, taking up 87 pages of the Federal Register, and lays out a complicated path to require basically all UAS, including personal and hobby drones, to be equipped with remote identification systems. The FAA expects that this rule will enable technical standards to be developed based on its framework and then a support “network of Remote ID UAS Service Suppliers (Remote ID USS),” which would be tasked with collecting and administering the real-time information from UAS as they fly.
The rule requires all UAS to equip within one of two categories: “standard” remote identification and “limited” remote identification. Standard remote identification would broadcast identification and location information as well as connect to the internet to transmit the same information to a Remote ID USS. Limited remote identification would not require UAS to broadcast identification, but to only transmit through an internet connection. But limited UAS would be restricted in where it could fly, including only within 400 feet of its controller or control station.
The rule lays out very few exceptions. Any drone weighing less than 0.55 pounds (250g) would be exempt as well as certain UAS owned and operated by the U.S. government. Amateur-built UAS would also be exempt along with certain UAS manufactured before the compliance date, but those would be geographically restricted to flying only in “FAA-designated identification areas.” Otherwise, all UAS both commercial and recreational would have to comply.
The FAA took a largely “performance based” approach to the rule, meaning that it leaves most of the technical standards to independent standards-setting organizations such as ANSI. For example, it says that the UAS must be connected to the internet, but does not specify how. It also does not specify the strength of transmitting signals or types of technologies used to create the Remote ID USS. But the rule does prohibit Remote ID from using ADS-B technologies, which are required in manned aircraft. The FAA is worried about the capacity of ADS-B frequencies to support the large number of UAS.
The performance based approach leaves many unanswered questions, some of which will be central to the coming debate. For example, UAS will not be able to fly (and some might be designed specifically not to take off) when they do not have an internet connection. But many areas, including rural areas where risks are low and potential for UAS operations are high, have limited coverage. (Ed. Note: The time that some people might most need to fly a drone to see what is going on in their area is during a disaster, when local internet service will likely be unavailable, but the rule appears to prohibit operating UAS during internet outages. And existing rules restrict the operation of UAS by non-governmental personnel in some emergency-stricken areas.) The rule also does not specify how the Remote ID USS services will work and what kind of information they will provide.
As required by federal law, the rule outlines the costs and benefits of the proposed rule, quantifying them when possible. The rule is expected to have costs of over $500 million over a ten year period accruing to UAS owners, operators, and producers for increased costs of equipping. But almost half of the cost come from “subscriptions” to Remote ID USS services that drone operators would have to pay in order to legally fly in the airspace.
The FAA was unable to quantify many benefits to the UAS system, specifically citing only a $2.45 million reduction in FAA staffing hours over ten years. But the rule cites many benefits that were not quantified, including safety and security benefits to other aircraft and law enforcement as well as the ability for UAS operators to expand their operations.
The rule has generally been welcomed by commercial UAS industry, not because they necessarily support all parts of the proposal but because now they have something to react to. Over the coming months, we should expect significant debate and feedback on the proposed rule by all UAS stakeholders. Hobbyists and smaller UAS operators are likely to push back against many of the provisions, citing increased costs for drones and subscriptions as well as concerns over privacy. Within a week of it being published, the proposed rule had over 80,000 page views and dozens of public comments.
Regardless, the UAS community has time to debate and react to FAA’s proposal. As planned, it will not be finalized for at least 18 months and then has an additional three years before requiring compliance.