DJI proposing "electronic license plates" for drones

Drone manufacturer DJI published a white paper proposing a kind of license plate for drones in the form of a wireless identifier that the buzzing UAVs would be required to broadcast. The paper describes a possible way to balance the privacy of drone operators with perceived public concern about whose controlling the bots buzzing overhead. You can read the full paper as a PDF here. From David Schneider's column in IEEE Spectrum:

As the company points out in its whitepaper, drone operators might want to maintain anonymity even if there were people around to witness their flights. Suppose, for example, that a company were surveying land in anticipation of purchasing and developing it. That company might not want to clue in competitors. Or perhaps the drone is being flown for the purposes of investigative journalism, in which case the journalists involved might not want others to know about their investigations.

DJI proposes that drones be required to broadcast an identifying code by radio . . . That code would not include the name and address of the owner, but authorities would be able to use it to look that information up in a non-public database—a kind of electronic license plates for drones.

At the same time, it’s easy to understand why law-enforcement or regulatory authorities would sometimes want to identify the owner or operator of a drone, say, if somebody felt the drone were invading their privacy or if a drone were being flown close to a nuclear power plant. “Many people have concerns [about drone flights] that could be ameliorated if somebody could talk to [the operator],” says Adam Lisberg, DJI’s spokesman for the United States and Canada.

DJI’s proposed solution is to require drones to broadcast an identifying code by radio, perhaps with that code embedded in the telemetry or video transmissions. That code would not include the name and address of the owner, but authorities would be able to use it to look up that information in a non-public database.

Notable Replies

  1. Revolutionary! He's invented the transponder! Don't ships and airplanes already have those?

  2. As drones get cheaper, I think it will be harder and harder to enforce this. Sure, you can require every manufacturer and importer to support it. But as long as you're buying them boxed of the shelf from a teenager at Academy Sporting Goods, you're never going to get those people to correctly setup and register those drones. Most of them will just have the factory default ID (which, God willing, would be unique, just not tied to a useful address).

    To enforce something like a "license plate", you first need a dealer who wants to keep on the right side of the law as much as he wants to make a sale. Drone dealers would be well within the realm of future possibility, but would also add enough cost that significantly fewer people would by them. (And once you accept that there are dealers and no such thing as a truly cheap drone anymore, that will drive up the price range manufacturers aim at.)

    I'm amazed they haven't already. They really, really want to regulate this space, but it keep falling into arguable gray areas.

    Also, after drones reliably start transmitting (and secure sites start monitoring and logging them), I think a lot of drone operators will be disappointed to find just how little land out there that they actually have any legal right to fly over.

  3. "Put out an APB on Mr DEFAULT!"

  4. Popobawa proposing autonomous drones which license themselves with each other, so they aren't arbitrarily subject to human laws.

  5. I'll just note (again) that under the current laws that the FAA is operating with, there are no drones: There are UAVs and there are model aircraft. (Fun: The same hardware can be either depending on how you use it.)

    If you fly your DJI for commercial use, then it's a UAV and there are regulations heavier than the drone.
    If you fly it for pure hobby use, it's a model aircraft with few regulations, and the FAA is forbidden to add more.

    The current "you must register your drone" stuff, is cough operating in advance of the law, to put it politely. The registration page on their site specifically says that it's for registering a UAV.

    (I am not a lawyer, and good luck pointing out to local law enforcement that your DJI is a model aircraft rather than a UAV.)

    Any further regulations over hobby drones are going to need a trip through the sausage factories of Congress.

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