The world’s largest maker of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), China’s DJI, has proposed an electronic identification framework for UAS that would allow authorities in the United States to identify drone owners when necessary while also respecting their privacy.
Last year, the Congress directed the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop approaches to remotely identifying the operators and owners of unmanned aircraft, and set deadlines for doing so over the next two years.
Drone maker DJI has outlined a concept in which each drone would transmit its location as well as a registration number or similar identification code, using inexpensive radio equipment that is already on board many drones today and that could be adopted by all manufacturers.
“DJI understands that accountability is a key part of responsible drone use, and we have outlined a proposal that balances the privacy of drone operators with the legitimate concerns authorities have about some drone operations,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI vice president of Policy and Legal Affairs.
Anyone with the proper receiver could obtain those transmissions from the drone, but only law enforcement officials or aviation regulators would be able to use that registration number to identify the registered owner. DJI said the system would be similar to automobile license plates, which allow anyone to identify a nearby vehicle they believe is operating improperly, but which can only be traced to their owner and operator by authorities.
“The best solution is usually the simplest,” DJI wrote in a white paper on the topic. “The focus of the primary method for remote identification should be on a way for anyone concerned about a drone flight in close proximity to report an identifier number to the authorities, who would then have the tools to investigate the complaint without infringing on operator privacy.”
Last week DJI submitted the white paper to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which is collecting perspectives on how to remotely identify small drones in advance of an FAA effort to develop a consensus approach.
DJI said it believes a remote transmission system is preferable to a network that attempts to track or record the location of all drones in real time, which would be far more complex to develop and would expose the confidential information of drone users.
The DJI white paper notes several examples of professional and personal operation of drones in which the operator has a legitimate need to keep their identity and the nature of the operation confidential, such as an energy company using drones to survey the location of a prospective new wind farm.
DJI said its proposed system for the United States would protect the privacy and safety of drone pilots, and would prevent professional drone operators from having to share proprietary information about the location and nature of their flights. Noting that some drones have been targeted by gunfire and some drone pilots have been threatened with assault despite flying legally, DJI said it supports allowing individual drone owners to avoid disclosing their identities to the general public.
“No other technology is subject to mandatory industry-wide tracking and recording of its use, and we strongly urge against making UAS the first such technology. The case for such an Orwellian model has not been made,” the white paper says. “A networked system provides more information than needed, to people who don’t require it, and exposes confidential business information in the process.”
In a separate report, DJI claimed that drones have rescued at least 59 people from life-threatening conditions in 18 separate incidents around the globe.
More than one-third of the people rescued were saved by drones operated by civilian bystanders and volunteers offering their services to help professional rescue personnel. As drones have become more widely used by public safety agencies as well as individuals, the rate of lifesaving drone work now averages almost one per week, according to its report.
DJI’s report is based on a survey of media reports collected from around the world and DJI said it believes it undercounts the number of lifesaving activities undertaken with drones.
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