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?
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.