With the release of the final requirements and policymaking around remote identification for unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration appears to have determined that the drone industry is not yet ready for or in need of complex, scalable Internet-based unmanned traffic management (UTM) solutions envisioned by NASA and numerous industry actors.
The FAA has instead opted for a simpler, less controversial and less capable approach to remote ID, eliminating the requirement for network-based transmission from its original proposed rule that was released last year. That document received more than 53,000 comments from the public and interested parties, raising technical and other challenges that the agency “had not foreseen or accounted for . . . when it proposed using the network solution,” according to the final rule.
The final remote ID rule will require most UAS to transmit via broadcast a few elements, including a unique identifier, the aircraft’s position and the position of its control station (or operator). The FAA and approved law enforcement agencies will be able to correlate the message elements with the FAA’s drone registration database to determine who may be flying aircraft that are not noncompliant, an important tool as unmanned aircraft continue to proliferate.
The originally proposed rule viewed remote ID as a building block for a UTM architecture that would, through constant connectivity, provide strategic and tactical deconfliction for many unmanned aircraft operating in a crowded environment. Under the final rule, the FAA has decided to take a more “simplified approach” to implementing remote ID while it waits for the industry to mature its understanding of UTM and the technical requirements it will involve.
“The FAA decided to take a simplified approach at this time to remote identification by only adopting the broadcast requirements in this rule,” the final document states. “As adopted, this broadcast-only rule provides an initial remote identification framework and sets the foundation for future regulatory actions. As the FAA builds the regulatory constructs that support increasingly advanced concepts, such as BVLOS and UTM, the United States Government will be prepared to solve safety and security issues related to those concepts based on more mature understandings.”
After releasing the proposed rule last December, which included network transmission requirements, the FAA selected Airbus UTM, Airmap, Amazon, Intel, OneSky, Verizon Skyward, T-Mobile and Google’s Wing to participate in a remote ID cohort and build the technology that would undergird the data exchange service connecting various unmanned service suppliers (USSs) planning to provide remote ID functionality.
The cohort struggled to solve numerous technical and regulatory issues related to network-based remote ID. Numerous companies expressed concerns around data privacy, unwilling to have a detailed history of their operations stored in an FAA database and theoretically accessible by competitors or the public. By May, the group had resolved to limit the frequency of transmissions to once per minute, a compromise designed to limit the data collected and stored — but one that fundamentally undermined the ability of a remote ID service to serve as a building block for a UTM that provides useful real-time deconfliction services.
“It has become apparent to the FAA that Remote ID USS may struggle in facing significant technical and regulatory requirements that go beyond existing industry consensus standards,” the final rule states. “Early in 2020, the FAA convened a Remote ID USS cohort to explore developing the network solution that is necessary to implement the proposed network requirements. The cohort identified several challenges with implementing the network requirements, which the FAA acknowledges it had not foreseen or accounted for when it proposed the network solution and Remote ID USS framework.”
The final remote ID rule has received a positive, if muted, response from the drone industry, with few finding much to criticize in its simplified implementation. For operators, concerns around data privacy disappear as there is no vehicle for network transmission and storage of data. There is also no longer the fear of being required to pay for monthly subscription-based Internet service for unmanned aircraft — and the FAA’s fear that such a requirement would severely impact compliance — as well as network-enabled drones being exposed to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
“While we are excited about the release of the Remote ID rule, we do believe the current regulation could potentially limit the acceleration of advanced UTM services,” Bob Hammett, CEO of OneSky, told eVTOL.com. “By only mandating broadcast technology — as opposed to a broadcast and network capability implementation — the rule focuses almost entirely on the safety case, rather than safety and efficiency, scalability, airspace accessibility. We will need to continue to evolve the rule in order to move towards advanced operations, including Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations — which is what will ultimately scale the drone economy.”
The FAA’s response to this viewpoint, as noted in the final rule, is a practical one for an agency that has positioned itself as trying to move at the speed of industry innovation but not lead it: “The unknowns regarding UAS integration make it impractical to expand this rule beyond a broadcast-only solution.”
The crowded UTM industry — mostly an aspirational term, much like the eVTOL industry at present — may largely be emerging too early for the service it seeks to provide, as drone operations today simply are not complex and frequent enough to warrant the widespread use of strategic deconfliction services. Many UAS service suppliers have undergone rounds of layoffs in the past year as they struggle to find sources for short-term revenue generation, competing for low-dollar contracts to provide commoditized infrastructure inspection and similar services while they await regulatory approvals for operations that truly require their technology.
“The elimination of the network requirement in favor of a broadcast-only rule seems like an acknowledgment that there are significant challenges implementing a network requirement, that UTM and widespread BVLOS operations are still a ways off, and that broadcast is good enough for most current, limited operations,” Josh Turner, partner at Wiley Rein LLP, told eVTOL.com.
The new remote ID provisions will take effect 60 days after publication, and after an additional 30 months, unmanned aircraft will not be able to operate in U.S. airspace unless they comply.
The FAA also released a final rule for the operation of unmanned aircraft at night and over people, amending existing Part 107 restrictions to allow these operations routinely under certain conditions — rulemaking likely to have more short-term impact on drone operations than remote ID.
Most notably, the agency established a new route to unlocking operations over people that accounts for the potential existence of UAS type certified under Part 21. The agency published proposed airworthiness criteria for 10 aircraft types in November.