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How Remote ID, the rule that will enable US drone delivery, came together

  • 1 yr ago

This April, new US drone regulations went into effect. While “Remote Identification”—or Remote ID—may sound dry, the rule will have far-reaching impacts on American skies.

Remote ID will have a tiered rollout that requires: 

  1. Manufacturers to build broadcasting capabilities into drones, as of this September. This effectively creates a digital, real-time license plate system for drones. 
  2. Drones to broadcast a unique identifier number and details about the drone’s orientation, starting in September 2022. 

The rule, which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) called “a major step toward the full integration of drones into the national airspace system,” will pave the way for drone delivery at scale. Eventually, an order-of-magnitude more Americans may regularly engage with drones as a result of it. 

But Remote ID, especially in its earlier incarnation, was not a welcome change for the groups who most passionately know and use drones. Here, we’ll look at how the rule came to be. What did it take for Uncle Sam and hobbyist fliers, RC enthusiasts, and consumer drone makers to reach a (partial) truce?

A heated tug-of-war

Years ago, an alphabet soup of three-letter Washington agencies (FAA, DHS, etc.) decided the government needed a game plan for drones and their rapidly advancing technological capabilities. The government said it wouldn’t greenlight beyond-line-of-sight flights in congested airspace until it knew more. Namely: Who’s flying what? 

A new rulemaking process was born, one that would put in place technologies that could eventually lead to the safe integration of commercial drone networks in US airspace. The FAA contracted out some development work to eight companies—Airbus, AirMap, Amazon, Intel, One Sky, Skyward, T-Mobile, and Wing. 

The presence of telco players on the list—and the wording of an earlier draft of the Remote ID proposal—suggested a cellular connection for compliance. A mobile data subscription would be expensive and cumbersome for hobbyist fliers, first-person view (FPV) pilots, and DIY enthusiasts. For the average pilot, it could make aircraft unflyable unless he or she is operating in an FAA-approved area. 

As Ars Technica bluntly put it last February, the draft Remote ID proposal was “a giant middle finger to aviation hobbyists.” 

Reminder: In the US, the rulemaking process typically takes years. Remote ID was no different. The first official proposal hit the Federal Register on December 31, 2019.  

In January 2020, DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker, came out swinging against the proposed rule. “Unfortunately,” DJI wrote at the time, “the FAA’s vision of Remote ID released late last month is deeply flawed.”

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