FAA loophole allows federal drones to avoid Remote ID compliance
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) proposed rules for Remote ID for Drones is meant to serve as an electronic license plate for all unmanned aircraft that fly in the national airspace.
The proposed rules do allow for a few exceptions. For instance, Remote ID is not required for:
- Drones that are flown recreationally and weigh less than 0.55 pounds, such as the DJI Mini 2.
- Unmanned aircraft that are built for special research purposes.
- Drones that are owned by the military or otherwise owned by the federal government “but only if granted special permission from the FAA.” Such permission cannot be requested by state, county, or local governments, but can be requested by the federal government, reports Wired.
Once the proposed rules for Remote ID for Drones have been finalized, as the FAA is planning to do by the end of this year, this special permission loophole will allow the federal government to fly drones without Remote ID compliance.
Why would I care if federal drones avoid Remote ID compliance?
Now you may ask, why does this matter? Well, it matters because the proposed rules for Remote ID for Drones allow the federal government to fly drones to monitor U.S. citizens outside of the government’s legal mandate and without any transparency or accountability.
We’ve already seen this happen during the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis on May 29th when Customs and Border Protection flew an MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) drone over the area to monitor the crowds and their movements. Wired reports that CBP’s jurisdiction is restricted to operating within 100 miles of US borders. Minneapolis is 300 miles from the Canadian border, which would make this drone flight illegal.
According to an official statement , the US Customs and Border Patrol drone that flew over Minneapolis provided “live video feed to ground law enforcement, giving them situational awareness, maximizing public safety, while minimizing the threat to personnel and assets.” In short, drones were used in what is suspected as a “preemptive” attempt to watch for violations of the law. But was CBP itself breaking the law by using a drone to watch US citizens, Wired wonders.
Similarly, we saw the Secret Service, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, fly a tethered drone to monitor protests taking place near the White House in June of this year. That same department published recommendations against monitoring constitutionally protected activities “such as the First Amendment’s protections of religion, speech, press, assembly, and redress of grievances (e.g., protests, demonstrations),” in 2015.
It seems reasonable to assume that drones will be used more frequently by federal government agencies as surveillance tools during protests and other unrest going forward. This makes it even more important for journalists, reporters, and the general public to know when and where these surveillance drone flights take place, and if these operations are legal.
Will the FAA close the Remote ID compliance loophole for federal drones?
If the FAA would close the loophole in the proposed rules from Remote ID for Drones and would require federal drones to also carry an electronic license plate this problem would be solved.
Remote ID for Drones, as proposed by the FAA in December of 2019, would communicate data such as the identity of the drone via serial number or flight session ID, control station latitude and longitude, control station barometric pressure altitude, a time mark, emergency status, drone latitude and longitude, the unmanned aircraft’s barometric pressure altitude. This information would be recorded by the FAA and made available to the public.
The loophole in the FAA proposed rules for Remote ID for Drones allows federal unmanned aircraft to evade transparency and it goes directly against the agency’s goal of holding ‘all’ drone operators accountable. It also doesn’t help to address “safety, national security, and law enforcement concerns regarding the further integration of these [unmanned] aircraft into the airspace of the United States.”
As the official commenting period for the proposed rules for Remote ID for Drones ended in March of this year and the final rules have not been published yet, it is hard to know if the FAA has closed this loophole that allows federal drones to be used with Remote ID compliance. But, we will be looking for this once the rules are published by the end of 2020.
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