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US drone location tracking rules met with criticism; India mulls similar move

In a significant development, the US allowed small drones to fly over people and at night. The country will also require drones to have a Remote ID — to essentially broadcast their location, along with the location of their operators. The rules will kick in from 2023, and even older drones will have to be retrofitted with the technology. The idea is that by means of this broadcasted location, the government and other law enforcement agencies will have more insight into not just the drones flying around them, but also the people flying them. 

This is significant not just from the US’s perspective, but also for regulators closer home in India, as the country mulls dabbling with Remote ID for drones as part of a larger drone traffic automation exercise (more on that below). However, the requirement of Remote ID has been met with opposition — Alphabet’s drone division Wing has come out with scathing criticism of the rule, claiming it violates privacy. 

The distance till which a drone will have to broadcast its location is unclear at the moment, but the country’s aviation regulator, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), has now made it possible to broadcast the ID over both the internet, or Bluetooth and WiFi — China’s DJI, the biggest drone company in the world, had criticised an earlier proposal by the FAA which allowed broadcasting only via the internet. 

Alphabet’s drone company Wing says the rule is bad for privacy, businesses, and consumers

Wing said that the US’ approach creates barriers to compliance and will have “unintended negative privacy impacts for businesses and consumers”. 

“While an observer tracking an airplane can’t infer much about the individuals or cargo onboard, an observer tracking a drone can infer sensitive information about specific users, including where they visit, spend time, and live and where customers receive packages from and when. 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.” — Wing’s criticism of US’ Remote ID solution

The company also said that broadcast IDs will make it harder to create large scale drone traffic management solutions — “a federated UTM [drone traffic management system] is a critical enabler of scaled drone operations and will be necessary for a thriving drone industry,” Wing said. 

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India dabbles with Remote ID

This development coincides India’s ambitions of making drone operations autonomous. The Civil Aviation Ministry, in November, released a draft UTM policy highlighting processes to automate drone operations, while highlighting relevant stakeholders, and how they will integrate with each other. While the discussion paper throws up key questions around privacy concerns (which we’ve pointed out here), it also talked about drones broadcasting their ID via either the internet or Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, similar to the US’ approach. 

As the density of drones in the Indian airspace increases, the ability to identify and track them will become crucial, the paper said, suggesting that real-time identification and tracking of drones will enable sharing the identity of a particular drone, and its location to other airspace owners and people on the ground. This will especially allow law enforcement agencies to identify and locate drones, it added. Interestingly, Chinese drone maker, DJI, in an exclusive interview to MediaNama had said that the government should consider remote-ID for drone identification.

As per the draft paper, drones would be able to share their identity over:

  • Bluetooth/Wi-Fi: These signals can be received and displayed by a mobile phone, via an app. However, the operational range of this protocol — 100 metres — will be limited, owing to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards, which is “significantly low” for identifying drones. Drones used by intelligence agencies however, can possibly use this protocol given the sensitivity of their operations.
  • The internet: Civilian drone operations will have to share their identity over the internet. “In this case, stakeholders such as law enforcement agencies, airspace users and the general public connect with a UTM Service Provider to access information about active UAS [drone] flights in their area of interest using a web-based or a mobile application,” the paper said. However, this protocol has its limitations in places with no network connectivity.
    • It is worth noting that companies in India have plans to use this particular protocol. MediaNama was the first to report that Vodafone Idea has partnered with Zomato and a few other companies to experiment with drone deliveries.

MediaNama has prepared an exhaustive guide to the drone industry in India, encompassing regulations, use cases, concerns around privacy and surveillance, and the way forward for the industry. The guide is available here

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