The US Federal Aviation Administration has released new guidelines for drones and drone operators. While the new rules open doors for commercial applications and innovations, like drone-based deliveries, they may also have an unintended impact on people’s and businesses’ privacy.
New Rules Loosen Certain Restrictions
Last week the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the final rules for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, commonly known as drones. The rules loosen restrictions on night time drone operation and allow flights over people and moving vehicles. However, there will still be certain restrictions, depending on the level of risk to people on the ground.
Previously, drone operators needed special permission from the FAA to, for example, operate in populated areas. They also needed a waiver to fly in certain airspace or at night. All drones still need to be registered and users must abide by Part 107 Rules and Regulations, or the rules for recreational flyers if they use their drone for enjoyment purposes only.
The changes to these rules pave the way for drone deliveries and other technological and operational innovations and advancements. Many companies and organizations, including Amazon, the US Postal Service, UPS, DHL, Walmart and Alphabet’s drone delivery subsidiary, Wing, have already launched or announced drone-based deliveries. Just recently, Walmart delivered at-home Covid-19 test kits to El Paso homes.
Remote Drone ID Mandatory
An important change that drone operators will have to comply with, is the requirement that drones must be remotely identifiable via a Remote ID while in flight. Moreover, the location of their control station must also be identifiable.
The Remote ID would “reduce the risk of drone interference with other aircraft and people and property on the ground”. Moreover, this identification system would “provide crucial information to national security agencies and law enforcement partners, and other officials charged with ensuring public safety”.
The new rules come into effect 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register next month. After that, drone manufacturers have 18 months to begin producing drones with Remote IDs. Operators have an additional year to start using drones equipped with this technology. From then on, users will only be able to fly drones without Remote IDs in specific FAA-recognized identification areas.
According to the US Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, “these final rules carefully address safety, security and privacy concerns while advancing opportunities for innovation and utilization of drone technology”. However, others have some doubts as the proposed identification technology, i.w. the “broadcast RID”, may have consequences in terms of privacy.
In a post, Wing pointed out that observers tracking a drone “can infer sensitive information about specific users, including where they visit, spend time, and live and where customers receive packages from and when”. Wing, and other industry advocates, suggest enabling compliance through either broadcast or network technologies to better protect sensitive customer information. An Internet-based RID would also work, and would not raise the same privacy concerns.
“This [technology] allows a drone to be identified as it flies over without necessarily sharing that drone’s complete flight path or flight history, and that information, which can be more sensitive, is not displayed to the public and only available to law enforcement if they have proper credentials and a reason to need that information”, Wing explained.
Fastest-Growing Segment in Transportation Sector
Drones represent the fastest-growing segment in the entire transportation sector. So far, the FAA has registered over 1.7 million drones and 203,000 FAA-certificated remote pilots. The industry expects this number to grow to at least 450,000 in 2022.
However, there are still many hurdles to overcome before drone deliveries can become truly mainstream. Rules may need to be opened up even further. For example, to allow routine drone flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.
Following the initial proposal of the new rules in December 2019, the FAA received and already addressed more than 50,000 public comments on the Remote ID rule. This included an 89-page document by the world’s largest drone manufacturer.