Remote ID is a term used to describe the process of remotely identifying uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) through various methods.
The need for remote ID arose when people were not able to see the identification number printed on drones (sort of like license plates) because they were airborne and simply moving too fast. Even if drone operators were required to have identification numbers while flying, it wouldn’t do anything other than help identify a drone if it crashed or caught fire, which isn’t very practical.
If the identification number can somehow be transmitted from the drone or control station to a receiver, it would mean that drone identification is possible during a flight.
This brings up the problem of which methods are best for remote ID, who would receive the identification information, and for how long.
The difference between direct remote ID and network remote ID
There are currently two different ways of achieving remote identification for airborne drones, and these methods are called direct broadcast and network remote ID. In the drone industry, the differences between the two have become an ongoing and heated debate, so generally speaking, someone who advocates for one version of remote ID is quite likely to be in opposition to the other.
The truth, however, can be found somewhere in the middle of these two sides.
Direct remote ID
In the direct remote identification process, the drone will directly emit a broadcasting signal towards the ground for anyone underneath it to receive.
There are many debates about which technology is best to use for direct remote ID and how infrastructure for this can best be built, but most are satisfied with the current possible options of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth as the broadcasting method. There are some more refined technical issues like connectivity problems, but for those not heavily involved in the technical implementation of direct remote ID, we can simplify things and assume that this solution is possible depending on where you are in the world.
For example, in the United States and in Europe, for certain C-Class marked drones, drone operators will be required to broadcast a direct remote ID. This is relatively easy to implement as drone manufacturers are able to retroactively equip their drones with broadcasting capabilities for only a small, marginal price increase.
The arguments against this type of remote ID include the limited range of the broadcast. The limited range due to a direct broadcast requires that the person or network receiving the identification information be located near the drone while it’s flying. That creates a lot of practical problems that many feel are too complex to solve to have direct remote ID be worth it.
Now, the counterargument is that the tool to receive the broadcast signal would be any phone from any person who is nearby, so they’re able to look up at a drone and check who the drone operator is. Now, it would never give a name or anything similar to that, but it would give a number similar to that of a license plate. So, just like you can see the number of the car in front of you, you’re not able to get any personal information.
The code could then be used to go to the police or to another authority if someone was doing something illegal with the drone. The main problem is that the system is currently a bit clucky as the system doesn’t work on Apple devices because of certain legal restrictions.
Another issue is that every time someone would call in a drone and the police needed to take legal action, they would need to dispatch a vehicle to somehow be within range of the broadcasted identification number.
Network remote ID
The alternative to direct remote ID is network remote ID, and as the name implies, it means that drones are connected to the internet through an app or through an operator’s control station. This would upload the drone’s identification information to a shared network that is available for all people to see, regardless of where they’re located.
Just like direct remote ID, there are concerns with this solution as well. The main problem is privacy concerns, which have already been addressed by the ASTM standard that was developed to create protection mechanisms for both direct and network remote ID.
To give an example of these protection mechanisms, people would only be able to see drones that are about 1 kilometre away from them for a certain amount of time before that information disappears. This would only apply to non-authorities like people on the ground who see a drone and are curious to see more information about them, or if they heard something outside and wanted to make sure it was just the delivery drone bringing their groceries.
Authorities, like the police, would be able to request drone identification information as needed.
This solution is much more comprehensive and has all of the advantages of a network. So, all of the data is available and accessible to those who need it, and there is no obligation for people to travel to the drone’s limited broadcasting range.
The biggest challenge for network remote ID is that there needs to be an infrastructure in place to facilitate connectivity. In the European Union or in the United States, this infrastructure already exists, so it is currently not a problem. This issue tends to come up in areas where remote ID is less important, like flying over a deserted area or large forest. In these areas, drones can also default back to direct remote ID via broadcasting signals or even fly without identification, depending on the scenario.
Who builds the infrastructure for network remote ID?
The infrastructure will be partially built by the national authorities and partially by private industry organisations, depending on one’s definition of infrastructure. This is also where we can start to see significant differences in approaches.
For example, the system in Switzerland is primarily focused on being lean and following standards in a very developed industry. Their goal is to stay on the simple side of things by having a functioning infrastructure to support their industry-based needs, while other countries are much more heavy-handed with their thinking and have started to focus on more complex systems like law enforcement integration and data collection.
Still, this is up to the individual authority to decide what to focus on.
Let’s also not forget that the debate between direct remote ID and network remote ID isn’t a black-and-white issue. As I mentioned above, the solution is likely a compromise between the two sides, so an authority can decide to mandate direct and network remote ID or have different requirements depending on the operation. So, an example would be if there was no network remote ID, a drone would be mandated to start broadcasting a direct remote ID.
Law enforcement and remote ID infrastructure
One of the main reasons why authorities are looking to set up systems for remote ID is to be able to empower law enforcement to track the unauthorised use of drones.
This likely comes from situations like the infamous Gatwick Airport incident in 2018, where a drone sighting over the airport managed to hold up air traffic for nearly two days. It was a wake-up call to authorities, who have since started to think about implementing jamming mechanisms to prevent this from happening in the future as well as remote ID laws to find the culprits.
Many people will naturally use their own common sense to counter with, “But why not use someone else’s drone or one without remote ID to commit a crime?”
It’s a good point, but you’d actually be surprised at the number of people who also use their own cars to commit crimes (most of them unintentional), and the same concept holds true for drones. There are, of course, people who will go out of their way to steal another person’s drone or to remove the remote ID functionality to avoid being caught, but for the majority of cases, this is likely not to be the case.
Remote ID helps to bring rules and expectations to the drone industry, so these can eventually be learned and taught to others. Naturally, people will make mistakes like flying a selfie-taking drone into a crowd of tourists or flying into a neighbour’s window. When new technologies are introduced at scale into society, we all have to learn how to adapt to them, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s important to educate those new to the industry about drone safety and highlight the benefits these new technologies can bring as a whole.
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