The U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to deploy drones like this one to monitor wildlife, aid firefighters, and provide the general public with scenic photos of public lands (BLM Photo)
The remote identification of drones and unmanned traffic management (UTM) got a thumbs up in many of the 1,840 comments on an FAA Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that asked for suggestions on new, operational limitations for the devices.
The comments were due by April 15. The FAA has said that it is reviewing them to help the agency develop additional proposed rules and that it is also considering hundreds of comments on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes certifying drone pilots, with online recertification every two years, and allowing those operators to conduct flights over people and at night without waivers. Removal of the waiver process for two of the most-approved Part 107 operations could save money, increase efficiency and allow the FAA to more quickly get to other applications, the agency said.
"A comprehensive remote UAS identification system is essential to establishing reasonable controls to protect against potential safety and security threats posed by UAS," the Commercial Drone Alliance wrote in its comments to the FAA on the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. "Since Remote ID rulemaking is a gating item for any rules enabling expanded operations, the FAA should move expeditiously to publish an NPRM on Remote ID of UAS."
The alliance also said that it "believes UTM will be a key component of airspace structure, management, and coordination as more UAS operate in the NAS [National Airspace System]. UTM will enable certain expanded commercial UAS operations and the scalability of such operations while also enhancing safety. Consequently, enabling industry-owned, cost-effective, and efficient UTM which prioritizes safety and balances privacy considerations will be a win-win for airspace users and the public. UTM efforts will be more successful if there are more UAS participating in the UTM systems."
Douglas Johnson, the vice president of technology policy at the Consumer Technology Association, wrote in the group's comments to the FAA that "any UTM system ultimately implemented must protect the privacy and confidentiality of information associated with sUAS [small UAS] operations and ensure that data stored in the system is secure."
"Information gathered by the UTM system will include, for instance, the personal information of individual UAS users along with information about their past UAS operations and flights," he wrote. "This information could reveal sensitive information about individual users, including information about their physical location over time.
Permitting law enforcement to access such information without a warrant thus would raise Fourth Amendment concerns."
Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Jeramie Scott, the senior legal counsel for the group, wrote in their comments to the FAA that the agency "should require a secure connection between drones and drone operators and also remote identification and broadcasting of relevant information."
"Absent such standards, integration of drones into the NAS poses significant safety and privacy risks, undermining public safety and national security," they wrote. EPIC urged the FAA to mandate security standards for the data collected by drones.
"Both the U.S. government and public have little assurance as to how and where their drone data is being stored, how it is being used, and with whom it is being shared," Rotenberg and Scott wrote. "In 2017, the U.S. Army banned the use of [Chinese UAS maker] DJI drones and other commercial drones in response to concerns about 'how DJI is using the data collected' and whether the Chinese government and Chinese companies had access to the collected data. After Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raised similar concerns about the threats posed by the data practices of drone manufacturers, the U.S. Department of Defense immediately banned the use of commercial drones."
Sports organizations have noted that drones pose a threat to their events. In comments to the FAA, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the NASCAR and the NCAA wrote that "a comprehensive Remote ID framework must be developed and deployed as soon as possible."
The organizations said that the FAA’s aviation rulemaking committee released a report on Remote ID in December 2017 but that "more than a year later, the agency has yet to release a Remote ID NPRM."
The sports groups advised the FAA "to move expeditiously with Remote ID, particularly now that the agency’s authority to act has been clarified in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018."
Steve Jangelis, the aviation safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, said that improvements to Part 107 are needed before the agency should consider expanded operations for drones. He also favored the deployment of Remote ID and tracking as soon as possible in the comments submitted by the association to the FAA.
"With the rapid growth of the UAS industry and more than 1,000,000 drone registrations that include 878,000 hobbyists, the need for remote identification is greater than ever," according to those comments. "While the counter-drone capabilities are expected to come online for certain high-priority national security and infrastructure sites soon, there are immediate steps that can be taken now for increased drone detection capabilities to be established at our nation’s airline airports. Recent drone sightings at Newark Internal Airport and other airports around the world, as well as evidence of UAS being used to deliver weaponized payloads in Afghanistan, Syria, and Venezuala, highlight the need for increasing the level of detection capabilities. We encourage the FAA to ensure that drone detection around airports and departure/arrival corridors is a focal area to mitigate safety risks from unauthorized drones."
Drone identification and tracking has become a top issue globally since drones shut down operations at Gatwick International Airport near London last December.
Comments to the FAA on recommending minimum drone standoff distances varied, as some groups advised such limits to enhance safety while other organizations, like Uber, advised the agency to examine the evidence before recommending such limits or not to impose minimum distance requirements.
"The FAA should not establish an across the board stand-off distance restriction for all small UAS operations," the American Public Power Association, Edison Electric Institute, and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, wrote in their comments to the FAA.
"The electric industry has successfully operated under the Part 107 performance-based rules which properly balance the need for flexibility in our operations with public safety," the organizations wrote. "For example, prior to Part 107, utilities conducting UAS operations did so under Part 333 exemptions. Most of those exemptions included a restriction that operations remain 500 feet away from uninvolved persons or property. This restriction prevented electric utilities from using UAS to inspect many parts of their systems because many transmission lines, substations, or other equipment fell within this 500-foot stand-off."
Officials from some major U.S. metropolitan areas, however, took a different view in the comments submitted to the FAA.
"In addition to the right of way rules, a minimum half nautical mile horizontal distance, and 500 feet vertical distance from manned aircraft should be required," the City of New York, New York City Police Department and Fire Department of the City of New York wrote the FAA. "There have been too many instances of flights in NYC where UAS have flown dangerously close to manned aircraft."