There’s a big buzz these days about the recently published ruling from the FAA on the requirement for drones to have remote ID. Whether or not you agree with the new rule, it’s been finalized, published, and takes effect soon (but not immediately).
What is Remote ID? Remote ID is commonly compared to a license plate on a car, but instead of a metal plate visible from several yards away, remote ID wirelessly transmits information about the drone and its location to other aircraft in nearby airspace, or receivers on the ground.
With regulations for remote ID now officially enacted, and compliance requirements imminent, here’s what you need to know about it:
1. You don’t need to get Remote ID quite yet
Even though the finalized FAA rules were published in the Federal Register on January 15, 2021, the rules don’t take effect until March 16. Before you start to panic, that means that all the other rules published at the same time (about night flights, flying over people, etc.) take effect on March 16. For the remote ID requirement, you have much longer to comply.
Manufacturers of drones are required to sell drones equipped with remote ID modules by 18 months from the date of publication, or September 16, 2022. You will be able to purchase a drone with remote ID capability before that date, but that’s when drone manufacturers must only sell drones equipped with remote ID.
For operators, the remote ID regulation kicks in on September 16, 2023. If you’re planning to continue operating a drone that does not have a built in remote ID module, you will have to retrofit your drone with a transmission module by this date. Or buy a new drone that has a built in remote ID.
2. Remote ID is required for ALL registered drones
Remote ID is not just something for the professionals, it’s required for anyone operating a drone that fits in the category requiring registration. Let’s break it down. If your drone weighs less than 0.55 lbs (250g), you don’t need to register it. That also means your drone doesn’t need a remote ID.
If your drone weighs between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs, it must be registered with the FAA. If it has to be registered, it also has to have a remote ID. For recreational flyers, one registration can cover multiple drones, and the same registration number applies to all of the drones flown by that individual. The same approach applies to a retrofitted remote ID transmitter. For example, if you have 3 drones registered to your name, you can use one transmitter between them.
3. There are three ways to comply
The FAA is making an admirable effort to make it as easy as possible to comply with the remote ID requirement. There are three ways you can get in compliance under the new regulations.
Perhaps the most sustainable long term method of meeting the requirement to fly with remote ID is simply to buy a drone that has remote ID capability built into it. The drone’s remote ID module will transmit location and identification information using radio frequency. This could include a wifi signal or bluetooth.
If you don’t want to go out and buy a new drone, or worse, have to upgrade your whole fleet, you can still operate drones that don’t have a built in remote ID module by retrofitting them with a remote ID transmitter. Similar to the built in remote ID, the transmitter will use wifi or bluetooth signals to transmit location and drone identification information to relevant parties nearby.
This is the loop-hole in the remote ID rule. If you want to fly a drone without remote ID, either built in or retrofitted, you can still fly, but only in an FAA-Recognized Identification Area (FRIA). Drones can be flown in FRIAs without broadcasting an ID, and must operate in visual line of sight, and must stay within the FRIA boundaries. Anyone is allowed to use these spaces, but they can only be set up by community based organizations or educational institutions. You can’t just designate one in your backyard.
4. Your method of compliance determines what information you need to transmit
If you’re flying in a community based or educational institution designated FRIA, you don’t need to transmit remote ID of any kind. Otherwise, anyone flying a drone must transmit certain information about their drone in one of two ways. The method you choose affects exactly what must be transmitted. Let’s look at these two methods again, and what information needs to be included in your transmission.
Method 1 (Built in remote ID capability)
From the moment you takeoff to the time the drone is switched off, it must broadcast:
- Drone ID
- Drone location and altitude
- Drone velocity
- Control station location and elevation
- Time mark
- Emergency status
Method 2 (Remote ID through add-on module attached to drone)
If you are using an aftermarket remote ID module, your flight operations are limited to visual line of sight. And, for the entire flight duration from takeoff to shutdown, the drone must broadcast:
- Drone ID
- Drone location and altitude
- Drone velocity
- Takeoff location and elevation
- Time mark
The differences in what must be transmitted is probably assuming that the built in remote ID features will be more sophisticated and have more finesse than what you may find in add-on modules. One major difference is in the information transmitted regarding control station location vs takeoff location. If you and the controller happen to move away from your original launch point, a drone with built in remote ID would be able to, and would have to, indicate your current location with the controller at all times. Whereas with the aftermarket option, the comparatively vague location of takeoff point suffices.
I’m assuming that in the beginning stages of adoption, it will be more common to see drone users adding on remote ID modules. But it’s probably safe to say that as time goes on and people upgrade their drones, the second method of retrofitting drones to have remote ID modules will phase out, and only drones with built in remote ID transmission will become the standard.
5. You don’t need an internet connection to transmit a remote ID
When the FAA first proposed new regulations, including the adoption of a remote ID system, the method of transmission was suggested to be done through a wireless internet connection. The drone community raised a big outcry at this suggestion, as it would limit drone flights to areas within range of cell towers or other wifi signals. That would have ruled out huge areas to be off limits to drones.
Thankfully, the FAA listened to the objections and came up with an alternative method of remote ID transmission. Remote ID information is transmitted through a localized radio frequency transmission. It may make use of an onboard wifi signal, or bluetooth technology, but does not rely on an internet connection.
This also means that only interested parties in the nearby physical locale can pick up the transmission to “read” your drone’s digital license plate. Your ID is not available to be read globally, as it would have been with an internet connection.
6. Your privacy is still protected
Although some would argue that the privacy concerns of those on the ground outweighs the privacy concerns of drone pilots, you will probably be relieved to know that broadcasting your remote ID is not a complete breach of your privacy either. Although just about anyone on the ground can download an app that can read the remote ID of any nearby drones, that doesn’t mean they’ll have access to any information other than the ID, drone location, altitude and velocity, etc.
While the drone’s serial number is required when you register it, this information is not a part of the digital license plate transmission. It’s true, law enforcement agencies will be able to track down the name and identifying information of the owner based on the drone’s ID, but this information is protected under a few layers, and not available to the average observer with a transmission reader.
Another instance of privacy protection is the use of a “session ID”, where instead of the drone’s serial number, the drone will be able to transmit a one time session ID that would be encrypted to protect the operator’s identity, even from law enforcement, but would still be able to provide all the relevant information about flight direction, emergency status, etc. For now, session ID is only an option for drones that have built in remote ID.
7. Remote ID is not applicable for indoor flight
One of the required pieces of information that must be transmitted along with the remote ID is the drone’s location, altitude, and velocity. These are of course determined by GPS functions built into the drone. Anyone who has operated a drone indoors knows that in order to convince the drone to take off, you almost always need to turn off the GPS, so that it doesn’t sit there indefinitely, trying to pick up enough satellite signals.
Because of the need to turn off the GPS for indoor flight, transmission of the entire package of remote ID and related information is not required while operating a drone indoors. The minute you leave the building however, remote ID requirements kick back in.
Admittedly, this issue is still a little vague, because the FAA has not issued a definitive statement on indoor flight. And it may come to the point where drones are not made to be able to turn off the GPS feature, which would make indoor flight nearly impossible. This is still an area that needs some clarification.
8. Remote ID is a package deal with other new regulation changes
The new remote ID requirement is not a stand alone ruling. It is part of a larger document that changes the rules for drone operations in several major areas. Here are some of the big changes.
Until now, flying at night has been limited to recreational flyers, and to Part 107 licensed drone pilots with night time operations waivers from the FAA. Under the new rules, even the commercial pilots will be able to fly at night without a waiver. The new Part 107 knowledge exam will include questions about safe night time drone operations.
Flight over people and moving vehicles
Where previously prohibited except for Part 107 pilots with a waiver, flight over people and over moving vehicles will now be allowed in certain situations.
Part 107 training requirements
Previously a Part 107 licensed pilot was required to renew their license with an in person knowledge test every 2 years. Much to everyone’s relief, this has now changed to a requirement to complete online training as a means of keeping your license current.
As a simpler way to keep everyone on the same page, drones will now be categorized. Category 1 drones are those weighing less than 250g. They don’t need to be registered, and don’t need to have a remote ID. But, they must now also either have prop guards, or propellers that will automatically stop rotating when they meet resistance.
Categories 2 and 3 are for drones that are over 250g. In order to be able to fly over people or vehicles, manufacturers will need to submit additional documentation to the FAA for approval.
9. Remote ID is a game-changer for drones in the national airspace
Despite concerns over privacy and the limitations inherent with the remote ID requirement, most in the drone community view remote ID as big progress. The reason? It means that drones can finally be integrated into the national airspace at a much larger scale.
There are a number of potential implications, although of course we have only begun to see what’s possible. One of the big implications of remote ID is that drones can now legally be operated on a larger scale beyond visual line of sight, because they are transmitting their location information to other aircraft. This was previously a huge sticking point for widespread drone delivery, and the door for that now stands wide open.
Another big area for change is all the possibilities that come with the ability to fly over people and over moving vehicles. Think traffic monitoring on a large scale, or even the needs of drone delivery in the real world.
10. It’s still an evolving system
Remote ID in its current iteration still has some kinks to work out. I mentioned the indoor flight dilemma. Then there’s the issue of how the broadcast frequency will actually work. What spectrum will be used? Who regulates that? It’s not spelled out clearly in the FAA document outlining the new rules.
The remote ID as it stands now is based on a radio frequency transmission, and that was a change from the original rule proposal, which suggested a networked ID system. That was set aside for the time being, but it doesn’t mean it has been shelved indefinitely. A network ID system may yet come into play.
A networked ID system may sound intimidating, but that’s where we’re probably headed, in some form or another. And it will set the stage for truly automated drone flight in the national airspace, where both unmanned and manned aircraft can share with each other real time location information for collision avoidance.