Big companies like Verizon, Google, make moves on electronic drone license plates

License plates generally seem to work for cars to identify the car’s owner and other important info. But for drones, a tiny plate on a flying robot whirring hundreds of feet in the air isn’t going to work.

Companies, the government and policies have tossed around ideas for tracking drones, primarily electronically, and this week, a swath of large companies came together in solidarity for an important demonstration that could foreshadow the future of electronic drone license plates.

Wing (the drone spinoff of the company formerly known as Google), Skyward (which is owned by Verizon), AiRXOS (part of GE Aviation), Uber, CNN and others this month demonstrated the implementation of their own network-based remote ID solutions based on drafted ASTM standards. (Other companies, such as DJI, have in the past released proposals or white papers detailing their own visions of what remote ID, or electronic drone license plates, should look like).

ASTM is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary technical standards that companies and makers largely agree to adhere to for a wide range of materials, that could one day include electronic drone license plates. The specific remote ID standard was agreed upon by 35 regulatory and industry organizations “to provide a flexible and scalable way to remotely identify drones while protecting operator privacy.:

Wing (left), AirMap (center), and UASidekick (right) remote ID applications visualize 6 unique drone operations across multiple USS. Image courtesy of Wing.

Within two weeks, tests were conducted in San Bruno, Calif. and Bern, Switzerland. Drones operated by any one of the participating companies flew in the same airspace. Any private citizen who opened any one of the corresponding ‘remote ID‘ apps designed by those companies could get more information about the drone in the air. Even if the drone flew out of their line of site, the apps could show general information about the operation, the LAANC approval (if used) and more about the drone.

ASTM is important because, rather than have one entity regulating or tracking all drone flights and operators, multiple companies could have skin in the game, preventing some monopoly. But by having all the companies operate in a way that they can interact with each other, the idea is we have a world where drones can operate similarly, even if under the pretense of different companies, apps or operators.

The standards also have privacy in mind.

“Remote identification based on ASTM standards enables operators to identify themselves to the public, but share limited information only when necessary,” said Joshua Ziering, Founder of Kittyhawk (one of the participants in the program), in a blog post.

Under the standard, the suppliers of the electronic licensing data will only be able to make it available when a display user makes a request, and the display user only receives the data for the specific, size-limited area of the request.

“Limiting the area makes it difficult for third parties to broadly aggregate operator information or derive information about drone operators’ customers,” according to a post from Airmap, one of the participants in the program.

But despite that progress, Remote ID has still run into hurdles, especially from the US government. A rulemaking report from the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued in August showed that the release of drafted rules around Remote ID would be delayed until Dec. 20, 2019, with the period for public comments being pushed back until Feb. 1, 2020. 

And drone industry advocates haven’t responded well to that news.

“It’s disappointing the rulemaking for remote identification has been delayed again,” Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said in a prepared statement. “The need for remote identification cannot be overstated… necessary for enabling advanced and expanded operations such as flights over people and beyond line of sight, which will provide significant benefits throughout our economy and society. Most importantly, remote ID is critical for ensuring airspace safety by helping law enforcement identify and distinguish authorized UAS from those that may pose a security threat.”

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