Over the past three months the industry has weighed in on the FAA’s NPRM on Remote ID. With over 52,000+ comments sent to the FAA and dozens of articles published, people have had a lot to say. The commenting period is now over, and there is a lot to unpack from these responses and what the takeaways are. Will remote ID help the FAA achieve its goals toward making the National Airspace safer? Will the industry be able to meet the demands of the Remote ID rule? What is the actual cost (both monetary and otherwise) of remote ID and who will pay for it? A lot of digital ink has been spilled to answer these questions and it is worthwhile to take a step back and get a bird’s-eye-view of what has been said.
Before diving into the varying positions expressed during the commenting period, it is important to remember that the rule on remote ID has been long awaited by many in the industry, and that means expectations were high when the FAA released the NPRM in December of 2019. There was quite a lot of pressure to get this rule right from the get-go.
Remote ID is considered to be the first concrete step toward building an industry-wide UTM and enabling more advanced operations like BVLOS and flights over people—these are complex and demanding milestones the industry is hoping to achieve. And if there is one takeaway from reading the NPRM on Remote ID is that, at least on paper, the FAA agrees.
“This is an important building block in the unmanned traffic management ecosystem.” Begins the NPRM in the Executive Summary, Introduction and Overview. “While remote identification alone will not enable routine expanded operations such as operations over people or beyond visual line of sight, it is a critical element for building unmanned traffic management capabilities. The FAA envisions that the remote identification network will form the foundation for the development of other technologies that can enable expanded operations.”
Having the FAA’s written acknowledgement that Remote ID is the foundation for expanded operations is no small matter—it aligns the FAA ideologically with the goals of the industry, which is not something that was always necessarily true in the past. For many, developing a UTM that enables complex operations is what will truly enable the industry to scale. For instance, Jacob Ruytenbeek, Director of Government Affairs at AirMap, who is slated to speak at the Commercial UAV News webinar on March 17th, sees remote ID as a necessary step toward achieving those goals.
"We broadly support the Remote ID NPRM as it advances the industry and is a fundamental building block of a UTM system that is necessary for BVLOS flights," said Ruytenbeek to Commercial UAV News. "AirMap is a strong believer that Remote ID has a key role to play in making the skies safer and more secure."
Ruytenbeek is not alone in his stance, even though many have posted comments debating the particulars of the NPRM on Remote ID, there is a general agreement within the commercial drone sector that it is necessary.
The Commercial Drone Alliance is among the many organizations and individuals to come out as a supporter of the overall spirit of the proposal. Although the Commercial Drone Alliance has specific issues with the details of the NPRM, it too broadly supported the proposal in an article featured in DroneLife.
“The Commercial Drone Alliance strongly supports the spirit of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Remote Identification proposal as a crucial step toward expanded drone operations.” Began Lisa Ellman, Global UAS Practice Chair at Hogan Lovells LLP and Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance. “The Alliance does have concerns about various details of the proposal but remains optimistic that the major issues can be easily remedied.”
However, the devil is in the details, and the concerns shared by the Commercial Drone Alliance, have been reflected by numerous players in the industry including the CompTIA Drone Advisory Council, the Pilot Institute, AOPA, DJI, the Small UAV Coalition and Joshua Ziering, Founder and CTO of Kittyhawk.io and another panelist on the NPRM March 17th webinar.
“Because Remote ID requirements would affect nearly every American drone operator, the Remote ID NPRM generated significant discussion and advocacy by many industry stakeholders, and over 52,000 public comments.” Ziering told Commercial UAV News. “With few exceptions, those who were satisfied with the NPRM remained quiet or simply pointed to the ASTM standard, and those who Remote ID requirements would affect the most were the loudest. Kittyhawk’s comments included support for an easily adoptable, tiered approach to Remote ID, ready for use in 2020, that enables advanced operations without drastic limitations to hobbyist and recreational operations. Removing OEM's from the mix is going to be the key to enable innovation while implementing remote identification. By making OEM's responsible for allowing a drone to take off, we're introducing significant complexity into the least malleable piece of the ecosystem—the hardware. This leaves hobbyists, modelers, and innovators all with a significant burden to be able to meet these standards. We've seen how software can quickly and cheaply scale to fill all kinds of needs—be it hailing a car or "Liking” a friend's baby picture. Combined with sensible broadcast ID requirements, a software driven network Remote ID solution is fully possible today, and for less time and dollars than proposed standards. One thing is for sure: The line between hobbyist, modeler, and commercial operator has been so blurred that any new standard must flexibly accommodate any and all of them.”
Many agree with Ziering’s and Ellman’s sentiments in regard to remote ID, and the common thread that runs through almost all of these concerns is the requirement for an internet connection. Whether directly or indirectly, the requirement for an internet signal has put additional requirements and restrictions on the industry and has raised a number of privacy and legal concerns.
The Cost of the Internet and Connecting to a USS
When talking about cost, there is a double meaning for critics of the requirement for internet broadcasting. First, there is the actual cost of having to have a sufficient data plan to keep your drone up in the air and to enroll into a USS, as well as the cost on the industry to develop the USS and the hardware that won’t let pilots fly without an internet signal. And then there is the cost of not being able to fly because there is no internet signal. This can be costly for commercial drone operators who need to fly where the job takes them, but it can also be potentially life threatening for emergency response teams who are unable to conduct critical missions with drones due to a lack of internet signal.
Drones have proven to be an effective and life-saving tool for things like search and rescue missions, and the unintended consequence of the remote ID ruling as it stands is that there is no clear way that would permit emergency response, or anyone else, to operate in internet denied environments except within the FAA approved flying zones.
Privacy/Security Concerns with Connecting to the Internet
There are several concerns in regard to privacy and security that, by virtue of requiring an internet connection, remote ID would open up for operators. The first concern, as stated by the CompTIA Drone Council in their response to the NPRM, is that there is a way that the NPRM can be read in which the public could potentially have access to pilots’ real-time locations. This not only exposes pilots to, at the very least, potential distractions if people were to seek them out during a flight, but it also accumulates data about the pilot. This kind of data reveals a lot about a person and is potentially valuable to the market (think: big data).
Furthermore, as Dawn M.K. Zoldi has pointed out in a recent article for Commercial UAV News, there is little the FAA can do to empower law enforcement to do anything about the careless, clueless, or nefarious drone operators once they are found; this is mostly up to local, regional, and state laws.
All of this assumes that everyone is compliant; noncompliant operators have already proven difficult to find and even fewer have been prosecuted. So, the cost, the risk, and the privacy concerns that requiring an internet connection present may not necessarily have the intended results that the FAA is looking for, which has caused a lot of concerns for many people within the industry.
All of this, among other interrelated issues, has led to some pretty dire predictions on the success of the remote ID rule as it stands today. There are few who are more outspoken about this than Christopher Korody, Editor and Publisher at Drone Business Center, whose articles have delved deeply into various aspects of the NPRM on remote ID.
“With no explanation, we get a 24/7/365 surveillance system that violates the 4th Amendment.” Korody told Commercial UAV News. “Without addressing the root cause – registration. All to catch the careless and the clueless. Will the cops show up? There’s no plan for that. Because it is mandated, RID must be more public utility than DirecTV. Because the FAA wants RID for free, they are giving away the store: Either industry pays or RID fails. The whole house of cards is built on other people’s money. There are no contingency plans, no performance metrics, no way to manage the dependencies. On point after point, the FAA reaches beyond its authority and competence. The uncertainty will deter and defer investment. On a positive note, it’s great to see the low altitude community finally find common ground. We need an association that represents all pilots.”
With all of these varying opinions, is the FAA’s NPRM on remote ID ultimately going to be successful? At least according to its own internal metrics? An article written by Greg Reverdiau, co-founder and lead instructor at the Pilot Institute, lays out the reasons provided by the FAA for remote ID that underpinned their decisions and then critically examines the issues of the NPRM in light of that mandate.
“I think the NPRM addresses most of its goals, but I don’t think that remote ID is the solution for several of them,” stated Reverdiau when asked about whether he thought the FAA met its goals with the NPRM. “If you look at some of the main goals with the FAA, obviously the main thing that the FAA does is make sure that the airspace is safe for everyone to use; it’s their motto and the reason why they exist. And for that, yes, I think that remote ID is going to help. However, if you start looking at their other goals like, for example, National Security, we are basically hoping that the bad guys are going to follow the regulation and tell us they’re bad guys, and then we’ll be able to catch them. Just saying it this way, it sounds ridiculous, because the bad guys are not going to follow the regulations. I think we’re putting a lot of limits on the average pilot hoping that this will put a damper on the bad guys who want to use drones for criminal or nefarious purposes. Also, if you have a regulation that people don’t want to comply with, then it’s not a good regulation, and I think that is exactly where we’re heading right now.”
Another important point that Reverdiau went on to emphasize is that although the commenting period is now over, this does not mean that the FAA has stopped listening. It is going to take at least a year to get a final ruling and during that time nothing is finalized. With over 52,000 comments, it is clear that this is a large and involved industry that is eager to see positive regulatory change. The best advice is to continue advocating for solutions that work in the best interests of the industry.