Drone License Plates: An Idea That Won’t Stave Off the Inevitable

As more and more drones hit the skies, we are beginning to encounter a modest number of problems that promise to balloon if ignored. 825,000 drones above a quarter-kilo in weight were sold in the U.S. in 2016. The question has become, how do we control all these drones?

Right now security and municipal officials are struggling with the question: what to do if there’s a drone in the sky that’s not supposed to be there? This is not just hypothetical. For instance, in the west, firefighting planes have turned away from a forest fire because some idiot with a DJI taking was Instagram shots of the fire. The reason given is that pilots cannot detect those drones by any other means than through eyesight, and that is not terribly likely given the small size of the drones. A person flying a firefighting plane probably doesn’t want to see a propeller deal with a drone, though the actual chance of a drone knocking a real plane out of the sky is quite low.

DJI implemented its GEO geofencing system in 2015, meaning the drones would refuse to fly within military bases, airports, and other sensitive locations. It even updates them on the fly (tee-hee!) with temporary flight restrictions based on local situations. In some types of secured locations, authorized representatives could sign in with their DJI account to bypass the security measures and launch.

Nevertheless, it’s the sort of corporate responsibility that sounds a lot like selling products and protecting the company from litigation and doesn’t really solve any problems.

Most of the time security personnel have no way of even noticing drones, let alone stopping them in some way. You don’t have to imagine drone traffic jams, UAV swarms, or quads with cameras stealing Bon Iver shows, because our friendly local science fiction authors have visualized it for you. But the question remains: what is the solution?

Register It

Government lawmaking in general and the Federal Aviation Administration in particular are, shall we say, a good decade behind the technology. One can’t really blame them. For years, no one needed any special rules for flying a RC helicopter in their backyard. Welcome to the future!

Then it came to someone: drone license plates. In late 2015 the FAA announced that any drones weighing more than half a kilo (0.55 lbs to be exact) and operating in the U.S. be registered with the FAA and must have a registration number printed on them.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Small airplanes have to have an ID number on them so a person with binoculars can read the number off the aircraft and look it up on a database. So why should a drone be any different? That said, the license plate has run into problems. Lawsuits, of course, not to mention a not-enthusiastic participation level: In 2016 there were 850,000 drones sold above the 500 g size, with only 616,000 total drones registered — including applicable craft not purchased that year.

What’s more, the information obtained by the registry didn’t get used in any legal proceedings the first year. Why? Maybe because depends on someone being able to read a number written on a drone hundreds of feet in the air.

The AeroScope Receivers

Recently the FAA called together a study group of drone industry representatives and government officials to try to come up with a scheme for some sort of “license plate” so that unwelcome drones could be identified. According to reports, the group was unable to agree on a solution.

DJI, the #1 drone manufacturer, took the initiative to create a mobile identification system called AeroScope.  Their proposal involves piggybacking an identification signal on a channel of the normal control frequency. This ID transmission could include anything from just the drone registry serial number all the way up to the drone’s GPS coordinates, altitude, speed, takeoff location, operator location, as well as an identifier such as a registration or serial number. Voluntarily, according to DJI, this could also include the operator’s address.

AeroScope receivers, which would naturally be manufactured by DJI, could detect those signals and display the relevant information for law enforcement. The technology would be coupled with the U.S. government drone registry, so cops could look you up to find your address. For non DJI drones, an add-on RF module could be purchased, and it would transmit the same info.

This Plan, It’s Gonna Suck

If AeroScope is implemented, some cop or technician will sit at a laptop and move a directional antenna to point at an errant drone. When the transponder signal is received, he or she looks up the serial number on the governmental drone registry and sends the ninja team to that location.

I see some problems right off the bat. Are we going to have anti-drone teams with AeroScopes and shotguns? Any non-automated solution that relies on a person looking at a screen seems doomed. How many people would it take to secure an airport, let alone a gigantic forest fire?

Another problem with the AeroScope is that it relies too much on the honesty of the drone operator and assumes that the technology will help rather than hinder the operation. Hackers already defeated DJI’s geofencing feature, which prevented operators from flying their drones into secured areas. We have to assume the same would happen with the AeroScope. Spoofing could be a problem. You could play a fine prank on a “friend” by flying a drone onto a military base, transmitting the incorrect codes.

Nevermind the difficulty in getting drone owners to voluntarily participate, or that the plan would be impractical from an enforcement perspective. The fact remains that full-sized airplanes can be tracked by radar and are really big and expensive. Drones are much more elusive than that. DJI’s idea is not a good solution, but rather a dodge to give the industry some breathing room.

Get Ready for the Future

I believe the future of drone control will be much more draconian. First of all, it will be automated. No solution will work if relies on a cop with a laptop and an antenna, because that solution is very expensive and probably not agile enough to intercept much of anything. The system will have to work even when no person is operating it.

The future that DJI is trying to stave off is one where every aircraft must be part of a network to be allowed to fly. Manufacturers will be asked to build in much more stringent control systems to increase their perceived safety. For instance, drones might someday be required to have parachute systems if operated over a populated area. Of course, all of these laws only apply if the person in question is both law abiding and technically incompetent. Crime will always be a thing, and let’s face it, a drone is just some motors, a control system, and a battery. You don’t need DJI’s help to make one, and the government has no way to stop you.

Share some comments with your ideas on how to control a problem that only barely exists now, but probably will.

 

72 thoughts on “Drone License Plates: An Idea That Won’t Stave Off the Inevitable

    1. Generally, legislators only persist unpopular legislation in order to please sponsors.
      Such licensing rules create a synthetic monopoly for companies like amazon drone delivery services, and rule-exempt CNN/Fox media publishers.

      Thus, you don’t get a quad-rotor if you are showing rivers of pig blood in illegal chemical waste dumping, or citizens getting shot with tear-gas canisters at protests.

      Most responsible RC fliers already put their phone number on the model so people will return it if lost.
      However, we saw how the media influenced copyright law, and I assume the same despotic racketeers are well entrenched politically.

    2. This is mentioned further down, but it should be closer to the top. Like in the post in place of the misinformation that is currently there.

      If you fly a “Small UAS” for hobby use, you no longer need to register and can actually remove yourself from the registry as well as get a refund.

      https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/registration_deletion/

      Note for the foil hats among us: taking yourself off the registry drops you into two new public records request lists. Pick your poison I suppose.

  1. The idea would be that manned aircraft would be able to avoid these UASs without assistance from another entity (ex ATC). Until the UAS carries ADS-B, and make that mandatory, there will need to be another system on the manned aircraft. The delay from ATC relaying a UAS position to a pilot, will be too slow, and won’t prevent accidents.

    It is going to fail in so many ways.

    Not all the UASs built by DJI.

    1. big planes have no way to avoid small planes appart from air space control. The transponders gliders use are not monitored by big Boeing planes. One of the issue is distance, you need to detect them from very far to have the time to avoid them but a drone/small glider can’t emit too much power because of battery size.

      One big issue is that small planes tend to violate the ceiling limit, and go lower than allowed to take pictures, and that’s where drone collision are possible. Bigger planes don’t really have a problem with drones because they are already designed to strike birds. There will probably be a space reserved for drones in the future, 500ft above ground where plane can’t fly if they are not landing.

      1. I’m sorry, you are quite wrong about this. Almost all “big planes” (meaning airliners and most business jets in much of the world) carry TCAS II transceivers which can directly interrogate Mode C and S transponders carried by nearly all planes (small or large), and give automated collision avoidance advisories (climb/dive). No intervention by air traffic control required, but this is considered a last resort to avoid collisions.

        There is no low “ceiling limit” that can be violated by “small planes”, that is completely imaginary. There are requirements in much of the world to stay a specified distance away from people and buildings, particularly in built-up areas, and helicopters are mostly exempt from these rules. But, in open areas, it’s not illegal to fly 200 feet above the ground, or even 20 feet (which I’ve done), it’s just a bad idea to do this in general, as cable and power lines are nearly invisible until it’s too late to avoid them (and they do take down aircraft if hit).

        Transponders are fairly large, heavy, and power hungry, so they aren’t a viable solution for smaller drones. Nearly all aircraft in the US and Europe will be required to carry ADS-B transmitters in the next few years, and most will also have receivers which will allow them to see the relative locations of nearby ADS-B equipped aircraft and drones. ADS-B sends out an ICAO unique identifier like Mode S, so can be used to identify the associated aircraft. ADS-B transmitters can be built using existing cellphone components (frequency ranges overlap), I’ve seen functioning transmitters that are roughly the size of an Altoids tin that can be powered all day on a 9V battery, and still provide 100+ miles of range. The main issue is performance and certification requirements imposed by government aviation authorities, cost could be reduced to a few hundreds of dollars, if those requirements were relaxed for drone use. ADS-B receivers are CHEAP, any of the cheap SDR dongles can receive the signals with the appropriate software, and FlightAware sells units complete with appropriate antenna for ADS-B signals for $25 or so.

        1. A full range ADS-B transmitter can never be powered by a 9V battery for a day. Making one that fits an Altoid tin may be possible, but it would be a major engineering feat. The minimum RF output power is around 100W. Also, the ADS-B system is congested in busy skies. Letting drones use it would entail adding many more ground stations, which may not be cost effective.

          1. A “full power” ADS-B solution actually transmits at 250 watts, units only certified for use under 15K feet 175 watts, and TABS-compliant transmitters (intended for use in gliders, balloons, and large UAVs) are 100 watts output. Signals are only transmitted (IIRC) during 5 ms slots once per second, so a TABS transmitter is effectively 0.5 watts continuous.

            The higher power requirements are due to the need to be reliably received by ground stations that may be sparsely located in wilderness areas. Air to air range is longer, and for simple short range identification and anti-collision purposes much lower power levels would suffice. ADS-B is not dependent on ground stations, in the US the ground stations are used to feed location data to the ATC systems, broadcast locations of mode C and S only targets picked up by secondary surveillance radar, real time conversion of UAT signals to/from 1090ES (we have two ADS-B protocols/frequencies in use in the US, and not all aircraft can receive both), plus weather data.

            Here’s a link to a report on an earlier version of the ADS-B transmitter I referred to, during testing they transmitted at 1 to 10 watts instantaneous, and were getting upwards of 50 miles usable air to air range on 1 watt:

            https://www.mitre.org/sites/default/files/pdf/07_0634.pdf

      2. I heard that they now have ‘drone detection squads’ at airports, where everybody goes quiet a bit then they drive around with detectors and spot drones that are near the airport. (where they aren’t suppose to be.)
        A new version of the bird flock issue that hey had to deal with since forever at airports and for which they have dedicated teams.

    2. This is one of those problems that isn’t really a problem at all statistics-wise, but because of the wealth of buzzwords and the potential spectacle everyone’s suddenly so worried. More people will die slipping on turds in the bathroom, but we’re not going to birth some regulatory monstrosity out of fear of that because nobody cares. Same deal with the hyped-up horror of the fact that self-driving cars might someday have to decide to kill somebody. Who cares if their existence statistically saves millions, what about that one almost mythical fear that sells a bunch of clicks and newspapers?

      Birds also cause these problems with planes. Birds are self-replicating and are always going to be more numerous than drones. Yet we somehow survive. Nobody’s losing their minds about birds, there’s no buzz in that.

      They’re going to ruin drones with regulations without any incident terrible enough to warrant it. Everyone wants to live in a risk-free universe, but that will never, ever happen. In the meantime we will concentrate obsessively on the thin vapors of extremely rare risks while ignoring ubiquitous risks because they are mundane. That is how people work. I’ll be building my own drones and trying to sneak around the regulatory busybodies. Can’t we have just one wild west in aviation?

      I’ll go be a cantankerous old man yelling at clouds elsewhere. Sorry.

      1. About the birds…. planes are tested to make sure they can survive bird strikes…. however birds don’t contain batteries.

        I for one want to see drones, fired out of large cannons, directly into running plane engines, to see if they survive (the plane, I doubt the drones will ;))

        1. They already did such test, and the plane was fine. But everything always s has to be bigger and bigger and at some point a drone becomes a small plane that CAN do damage, ether by hitting something or by falling on someone.
          Hence the legislation now targeting drones above a certain weight.

    1. Yeah man, it is sick! Such a non-issue. If someone wanted to do something nefarious with RC equipment, it would have happened a long time ago, and there is nothing really that could be done to stop it. Also, they would probably wouldn’t use a quad but favor a more efficient wing.

      1. They did (allegedly) already arrest some would-be terrorists with RC planes. Although I’m not sure the idea and equipment wasn’t supplied by the undercover FBI agent.

        What’s more real though is that ISIS is actively using drones these days in the middle east, with good success, if you can call pointlessly maiming and killing ‘good success’. However such types won’t be stopped by the various licensees and all that jazz.

      1. Is that so? People have done it before in a very public way and there seemed to be no legal consequences. As long as the trigger is connected to a switch on the remote I don’t see how this is different from the (very rare) guns with an electric trigger.

  2. Perhaps some problems are not really meant to be solved but rather learned to live with.

    New technology allows people to do cool things. New technology can also be abused. That’s life and little “drones” are hardly the worst technology to ever be abused. I’m sure mis-used quad copters can cause some problems but come on… is this the worst problem in anyone’s life right now?

    Are we really STILL hearing about the plane that let the forest burn because of the drone below? Even this article which was trying to make the opposite point says “though the actual chance of a drone knocking a real plane out of the sky is quite low.”. I wonder if they just decided to let the forest burn because they wanted to make a point!

    Now I know I have heard about dead chickens being thrown into propellers and at cabin windshields to see how a plane would survive a bird strike. Why is nobody flying drones into them for the same purpose?!? Or are they and we just aren’t hearing about it? Maybe the results of those tests just didn’t match the intended rhetoric of “drones” being dangerous things requiring more regulation.

    1. Oh but I certainly don’t want those annoying buzzing drones with cameras flying outside my house.
      Hell I wish I could shoot the police choppers out of the sky already, and they aren’t around that frequent.

      And frankly when you are in nature you don’t appreciate a lot of annoying buzzing drones either really.

  3. This is dumb. If you have been wronged just knock it down and take it. If someone comes to your door looking for it back you know who it belonged to. Trade blows in person then move on with your life. Stop making others conform to your standards with someone else’s force. Government is cowardice in action.

    1. I bet you fondly remember the wild western frontier as “The Gold Ol’ Days” too, huh? Someone else’s misbehavior is not always best responded to with misbehavior of your own. That doesn’t make one a bleeding heart; it makes one civilized.

  4. Fear of ‘drones’ has got to be the biggest nothing-burger that has ever happened in the US, and maybe the world. How many incidents have there been with quadcopters? How many (verified) close calls? Articles like this are not helping the hobby. Statements like “…a problem that only barely exists now, but probably will.” are BS of the highest order. Creating legislation for a problem that ‘probably’ will exist? STFU. Stop with the feels, and give us some reals. DJI isn’t trying to be some savior to a problem that is a real threat to anyone, they are trying to be the kingpin of a technology that all flying toys will have to use to make $$$. Talkin about some massive automated mesh network to track John Q Nobody taking a few videos of his property, or Susie Speed ripping some hot laps in her local part; such a waste of time and tax payer money. DJI is just trying to make money, AMA just is trying to get members, the only one who is going to fight for the hobby is us.

        1. You are right, we should all just live in padded rooms with a steady feed of government approved entertainment piped to our entertainment devices. Just have a nice safe (meaningless) life ;-)

          What I’m trying to say that it ‘drones’ aren’t even a hint of a problem. There is no appreciable amount of danger there. There are actual problems in the world, and I’m a big fan of inefficiencies and working big to small.

          And “more accidents”? IMO there have been 2 actual incidents in the states, Sep 21, 2017 DJI style photo quad struck a Black Hawk off Staten Island and was able to continue flying perfectly fine, and Dec 5, 2015 with a quad going ‘rouge on auto-pilot’ in Cali causing a police helicopter to move to avoid it. Two incidents after hundreds of millions sold (maybe a billion, hard to track with them being so easy to order parts and build yourself) and countless hours flown.

          For me it comes down to the simple question, “What law would you make to stop something bad from happening?” The registry is crap, the only situation it helps with is tracking down someone after the incident, assuming they actually registered. Banning the sale is crap, there are already millions out there. Outright banning of their use is crap, because again, you can get in the air and create the incident so quickly that the pilot could be in the next county by the time the Drone Authority arrive.

          1. I don’t think this type of argument understand the basics : it’s not a matter of dealing with the drones right now, but with 1000 more drones within 10 years, autonomous to fulfill daily routine for companies or individuals.
            Controlled airspace was fairly easy to manage with few actors, but now it’s taking it to another level.
            I’m wondering how it will harm recreational flying sports.

          2. @Tweepy I think it is you that doesn’t understand the basics. The FAA already has the power to regulate ‘drones’ (ugh, typing that so many times today is making me ill) that are used for commercial purposes, or if they are over 55lbs. Check out FAA part 107. The only thing we are talking about here is hobbyist use.

  5. Also, the ‘Drone Registry’ was struck down in court, might want to mention that in the article.

    Court document (PDF WARNING) –
    https://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/FA6F27FFAA83E20585258125004FBC13/%24file/15-1495-1675918.pdf

    The FAA’s Registration Rule violates Section 336 of the
    FAA Modernization and Reform Act. We grant Taylor’s
    petition for review of the Registration Rule, and we vacate the
    Registration Rule to the extent it applies to model aircraft.
    Because Taylor’s petition for review of Advisory Circular 91-
    57A is untimely, that petition is denied.

    So ordered.

    For reference –
    H.R.658 – FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012
    SEC. 336. SPECIAL RULE FOR MODEL AIRCRAFT.
    (a) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law
    relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into
    Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this
    subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration
    may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model
    aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft, if—
    (1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational
    use;
    (2) the aircraft is operated in accordance with a communitybased
    set of safety guidelines and within the programming
    of a nationwide community-based organization;
    (3) the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds
    unless otherwise certified through a design, construction,
    inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered
    by a community-based organization;
    (4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not
    interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and
    (5) when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator
    of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport
    air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located
    at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft
    operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of
    an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating
    procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic
    control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the
    airport)).
    (b) STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section shall
    be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue
    enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who
    endanger the safety of the national airspace system.
    (c) MODEL AIRCRAFT DEFINED.—In this section, the term ‘‘model
    aircraft’’ means an unmanned aircraft that is—
    (1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere;
    (2) flown within visual line of sight of the person operating
    the aircraft; and
    (3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes.

  6. I think if we can’t keep the skies safe with respect to mid-air collisions, then we ought to do more to contain the problem. Pilots should be required to register their craft and seek regulatory approval if they are going to operate within a five miles radius or so of any drone. Drones are really expensive and hitting one with an airplane would definitely place an undue burden upon most any drone owner. Not to mention the potential for collateral damage if, say, parts of the aircraft were come lose and scratch the paint on somebody’s car. Airplanes are already a hazard to birds with some 11,000 or more bird strikes being reported every year. And I can’t say that I really blame those birds for going on strike either. Frankly I’m surprised they didn’t do it much sooner given what all they have to put up with. I’m not sure that I think the idea of license plates is such a good idea though. Don’t you think the Air Marshals are busy enough already without having to deal with pulling over wayward birds? I think somebody needs to rethink this whole cockamamie scheme and come up with something a little more seaworthy.

    1. That scene in the Jetsons when George gets diverted on a flight and dives down near to ground level harassing a couple of walking birds who complain about it not being safe for them even down on the ground!

  7. The plate number could be translated into binary and a flasher on the drone can blink the number. Yellow for zero and white for a one. Fifteen or twenty flashes would cover many plate combinations. Easy enough to program a Nano to do the blinking.

    1. Yeah. Historically, making things Illegal has worked so well. ..

      There are, of course, the common examples such as murder, drunk driving, and speeding, which are of course non-existent because they were outlawed. Those are really lame examples, but they are used a lot.

      For a better historical perspective, examine prohibition. “Let’s take something problematic and make it illegal” was (part of) the driving force behind the movement. How well did it go? Extremely Poorly.

      Government regulation has been historically shown to be a bad solution to almost any problem. This is not to say that government is useless or unneeded, but it is (almost) never the best answer to the woes of the people.

  8. Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.

    Ill take my chances with unregulated drones, thank you very much. If I have a problem with one, I will deal with it appropriately.

    1. Is it really your security though? Are you a pilot, or just some guy who would maybe hear about an issue, but never be involved?

      I agree with the sentiment, but you can’t really sacrifice someone else’s safety for your own freedom.

      1. I’m an RC pilot. I fly race quads, freestyle quads, photo quads, as well as multiple types of planes. As I said in my comments on this article, there isn’t any evidence that ‘drones’ offer a clear and present danger to anyone’s safety. If they did, because they are not a guaranteed right, I would agree that we should discus ways to mitigate that danger. And yes, they are using “Drones are a threat to our security” as a reason for registration and regulation.

        But again, after hundreds of millions of them have been sold, to all ages and skill levels, there have been 2 (in my opinion) noteworthy incidents. There are so many other bigger fish to fry, spending all this time and money on ‘drones’ is insane to me.

      2. I was employed as a UAV pilot for a little over 2 years. So I can say that I, at least, am well acquainted with the issues on a personal level. Due to the government regulations that were illegally imposed, however, the company I was working for decided to cancel that project. So to answer your first question, Yes to both.

        On your second statement, I disagree. You cannot sacrifice someone else’s freedom for your own security. THAT is the spirit of America. Of course I just made this an ethics and principals discussion, which are always so unbiased (myself included) and go so well on the internet…

        1. Freedom is not one, but many. One of them is also a freedom to be secure (see The Fourth Amendment, and arguably The Second is also inspired by yearn for security) if and when you want to. Our freedoms are limited by freedoms of all the others. In practice, it is always a tug of war and more powerful group or coalition will impose upon everyone else their idea about where the borders will be drawn.

    1. That is exactly why I don’t give credence to most of the “near-miss” or “sightings” from commercial aircraft. I don’t doubt that they saw something, but was it a bird? bag? quadcopter?

  9. I spent a bit over 10 yrs as an AMA club president, and I live right at an airport. Did post here some good while ago about my neighbor getting one of those tickets for flying his quad right in the glidepath at 500′. He’s out there today flying and has expanded his fleet to include at least one electric plane as well. Back before he got the ticket I had warned him but all it got was the finger. And we’ve all read about similar instances violating the airspace of manned aircraft to the point of hazard.

    It’s quite clear that somewhere there will be an incident that brings draconian restrictions down upon us all, and there is nothing we can do about it.

    The call is out for constructive suggestions.

    1. Wait, so he already has been punished legally once, but still continues to infringe? Why would making what he is doing “more illegal” help? Just keep reporting him so if something bad does happen, maybe at least the news stories will start with “Drone user, who has been issues citations multipule times, creates havoc…..”

  10. With retail store bought multi rotor aircraft one simple answer would be to disrupt the connection between the aircraft and the handset. In most cases the aircraft will detect the single loss, fly home and land under its own power.
    FYI – There have been mid-air collisions involving multi rotor aircraft and other models with little or no damage. This is why there is a weight limit on them.
    There is a huge amount of Chinese whispers and urban myths around this topic and knowing the limitations of these aircraft especially multi rotor aircraft, some of the stories are just ludicrous or one off stunts with the near loss or loss of the aircraft. There are going to be Dickheads in any sport so if you can come up with a dickhead test of some sort at the point of sale, that would probably be more effective.

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