This past week, the US government made one of the biggest and most impactful sets of changes to drone law we’ve ever seen — deciding that nearly every drone in US airspace needs to broadcast their location, as well as the location of their pilot, to “address safety, national security, and law enforcement concerns regarding the further integration of these aircraft into the airspace of the United States.”
Google isn’t very happy about the new rules, it turns out. The drone delivery subsidiary company Wing wrote a rather fearmongering post entitled “Broadcast-Only Remote Identification of Drones May Have Unintended Consequences for American Consumers,” which argued that the FAA’s decision to have the drones broadcast their location might allow observers to track you. Movement, finding out where you are going, where you live, and where and when you receive packages, among other examples.
“American communities would not accept this type of surveillance of their deliveries or taxi trips on the road. They should not accept it in the sky,” said Wing.
With language like that, you might think Wing argues that drones shouldn’t broadcast their location, huh? Oddly, no: Alphabet’s subsidiaries only hope they send it over the internet instead of broadcasting it locally.
Internet-based tracking is exactly what the FAA originally intended when it first proposed Remote ID rules in December 2019, before receiving a list of reasons from commentators why internet-based tracking might be problematic and deciding to abandon it. Here are a few of them mentioned:
- The cost of adding a cellular modem to a drone, to begin with
- The cost of paying for a monthly cellular data plan just to fly a drone
- The lack of reliable cellular coverage across the entirety of the US
- The cost of paying a third-party data broker to track and store that data
- The possibility of that third-party data broker getting breached
- The possibility of that data broker or network getting DDoS’d, grounding drones in the US
If you want to read the entire argument for yourself, the FAA took 15 pages to compile and consider all objections to Internet-based Remote IDs in its full rules (PDF) starting on page 60.
Personally, I find it quite ridiculous that the FAA feels compelled to choose between “everyone has to broadcast their location to everyone within earshot” and “everyone has to pay gobs of money to private industry and trust some data broker with their location,” but the reason why We don’t use internet-based tracking to make sense to me.
Most enthusiasts of Remote ID technology, including Wing, want to make it clear that it’s just a “license plate” for the sky, perhaps nothing more distracting than you already have in the car. Here’s the Wing on it:
This allows a drone to be identified as it flies over without necessarily sharing that drone’s complete flight path or flight history, and that information, which can be more sensitive, is not displayed to the public and only available to law enforcement if they have proper credentials and a reason to need that information.
But the thing about license plates, traditionally, you have to be up close to see them. You’d have to be physically following a car to track it. That’s not necessarily true for a broadcast transmitter, and it’s potentially far less true of an internet-based solution like the FAA Wing hopes instead. Naturally, it depends on who has an internet-based solution and how much you trust them and their safety.
Either way, it’s going to be a while before we find out how secure or vulnerable, how broad or narrow these Remote ID broadcasts are truly going to be. That’s because the FAA’s final rules don’t actually mandate what kind of broadcast technology drone will be required to use: companies have a year and a half to find out, and they have to hand it over to the FAA for approval. The FAA also explained that broadcasting Remote ID was only the first step, an “initial framework,” indicating that internet-based Remote ID might still be an option in the future.