‘Flight radar for drones’ on the way: you need to know this
Soon you will be a lot less anonymous as a drone pilot than you are now. From 2024, it is mandatory to have your drone broadcast some data, including the current position, altitude, location of take-off, and the operator number. In principle, this data can be collected by anyone in the vicinity with a smartphone. There is even an app that works as a kind of ‘flight radar for drones.' But how does that app work and what are the implications?
Note: this article is written with the European drone regulations for Drone ID in mind!
Are you flying in Open category A1 or A2? Then your drone will have to comply with a standard for Remote ID from 1-1-2024. This means that the drone continuously transmits some data during the flight utilizing radio signals (Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth), such as the current position and flight altitude, flight speed, the location of the pilot, and the operator number.
The goal is to enable enforcers to see who owns a particular drone. It is also possible to immediately check whether the pilot is complying with the rules. But it doesn't stop there: in principle, the data can be collected by anyone. The Remote ID data is not encrypted and can be made visible with a suitable receiver. Such a receiver can also be a smartphone, with an app specially developed for this purpose.
OpenDroneID is the first example of an app with which Remote ID data from nearby flying drones can be displayed. The app is available to owners of Android phones. The prototype of the app was already presented in 2018, but then there were no drones that met the (still under development) Remote ID standard. (For techies: the app's current version is compatible with the ASTM F3411 Remote ID standard and the ASD-STAN prEN 4709-002 Direct Remote ID standard. The source code is public).
The app works as a kind of ‘flight radar for drones.' After starting up, you will see a map view. As soon as the radio signals of a nearby flying drone are detected, you will be shown its location and flight path. After clicking through, current flight information is shown, such as the GPS location and flight altitude. In addition, you also see information about the operator/pilot, such as his operator number and the take-off location or the GPS location of the controller.
The app works on the basis of local radio signals, which are broadcast by the drone. In practice, the ‘scanning range' will be a few hundred meters at most, with an unobstructed view of the environment, without obstacles. According to the developer of the app, the range of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Legacy is a maximum of about 200-400 meters. The new Bluetooth 5 standard would enable a range of up to approximately one kilometer.
It is conceivable that special Remote ID receivers will be developed for, for example, enforcers and administrators of prisons, stadiums, power plants, water treatment plants, factories, and other critical infrastructure. They could then, for example, sound the alarm as soon as a drone is detected flying into a no-fly zone. The operation of such receivers would be very similar to the DJI AeroScope system introduced by DJI in 2017 but at a fraction of the cost.
Not all drones are immediately visible
Now it is not the case that the OpenDroneID app will immediately show all nearby flying drones after downloading. After all, the majority of drones do not yet transmit Remote ID data according to the new standard. (Drones from DJI do broadcast somewhat similar DJI AeroScope data, but they can't be displayed with this app.)
This is about to change. DJI recently announced that the Mavic 3 will be the first to meet Remote ID requirements as part of a user-executable upgrade to the C1 label. Other recent models are also expected to follow, including the Mini 3 Pro, Avata, Air 2S,, and M30. These drones will be the first to be detected and tracked with this app after receiving a Firmware Update.
Drones that do not have the hardware to broadcast Remote ID data can also be made suitable. There are now various Remote ID addons on the market, including a Czech and a Dutch product. Such addons are mainly intended for operators in the Specific category who, in due course, want to continue flying with older types of drones that do not receive support for Remote ID from the manufacturer.
What are the implications of such a ‘flight radar for drones' that can be installed by anyone? In any case, enforcers (Police, BOAs, site security officers) get it a lot easier. After all, they can immediately read on their screen whether a nearby drone, for example, is not flying too high or is flying in a place where that is not allowed. And because the operator number is displayed, it is also a lot easier to trace the responsible pilot/operator (in retrospect).
Speaking of tracing: that will, of course, be a tricky issue. Because as it looks now, the take-off location or the current GPS location of the pilot is also shown. For people who want to confront drone pilots, as soon as they see a drone flying, it is very easy to track down the pilot and address him. Or worse, you increasingly hear stories that drone pilots – including professionals – are threatened or even attacked because bystanders, for example, feel their privacy has been invaded.
Incidentally, not all drones will be visible in the app. In any case, there are several exceptions to the regulations. European legislation allows so-called legacy drones under 250 grams in Open category A1 to continue to be used, even after 1-1-2024. In principle, these drones do not have to meet the requirements for Remote ID.
Heavier legacy drones up to 25 kg, DIY drones, and model aircraft that are flown in Open category A3 do not necessarily have to comply with the Remote ID standard. But if you fly in Open category A3 with a drone with a C2 or C3 label, it will have to transmit Remote ID data.
Penalty for non-compliance
There is a good chance that many drone pilots will continue to fly with their drones as they were used to after 1-1-2024. And even if their device can be enabled for Remote ID, not everyone will immediately install the firmware update or enter the operator number into the drone's memory. It is even conceivable that there are people who, using a hack, deliberately disable the Remote ID function or have false information broadcast.
All this is unavoidable. There is a chance that fines will be issued to drone pilots who, in due course, are caught in the act of flying a drone without a correctly functioning Remote ID. Just like you can get a fine for driving without (or with a false) license plate.
Future: U-space and BVLOS flying
Finally, there is another reason that work is being done on introducing Remote ID. In the future, all drones flying in U-space will have to communicate their location, flight altitude, and flight direction to a so-called U-space Service Provider (USSP). This way, all manned and unmanned air traffic can be managed and segregated from a central system. And that is important to enable drone flights out of sight (BVLOS) on a large scale.
It seems that Remote ID in U-space should be broadcast not only locally, but also through network technology. In other words: the drone must be connected to the internet (whether or not via the controller) by means of 4G/5G. The principle is therefore the same, only the implementation method is a lot stricter. However, the precise implications for drone pilots are still difficult to map.
Let us know what you think about Remote ID for drones and this ‘Flight radar for drones' in the comments below.
This article first appeared on Dronewatch and is written by Wiebe de Jager who is also a DroneXL contributor.
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