Electronic License Plates for Drones May Come Soon

New drone standard for remote ID submitted for approval

2 min read
Image of a drone flying above a field
Photo: iStock

Drones may soon carry electronic license plates, thanks to new guidelines for a remote ID system for unmanned aircraft recently submitted for approval.

The newly proposed standard, ASTM WK65041, sets up guidelines for how drones can identify themselves to remote observers, as well as for how to set up systems to read that data. Developed with input from civil aviation authorities such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada, as well as leaders in the drone industry, the would be standard was submitted to global standards organization ASTM International (originally the American Society for Testing and Materials) on 5 September and will be out for ballot on 9 September.

“We’re working with a lot of drone manufacturers on this standard—DJI, for instance,” says Philip Kenul, chairman of ASTM International’s Committee F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which helped develop the newly proposed standard. “Many other companies are working with us as well, such as Google Wing and Amazon, and will comply with the standard.”

The standard’s developers envision drones continuously broadcasting ID data via WiFi or Bluetooth as part of the messages such technologies normally transmit to allow other devices to discover and link with the broadcasting device. These ID signals are readable from a distance of 350 to 450 meters.

“Intel has done studies showing that when Bluetooth 5 comes out, we could expect a range of up to a kilometer,” Kenul says.

Apps on smartphones or other devices can then connect to the Internet to look up data on the drone. The public will likely only be able to read the drone's ID number, which might be the drone's serial number, or a registration number from the FAA or other civil aviation authorities. Law enforcement can get more information about the drone from its ID data, such as its latitude, longitude, altitude, speed, direction, and takeoff point, plus its owner and operator data, and the stated purpose of the flight.

“You can just take a phone, point it up at a drone and get its electronic ID if you see it doing something dangerous. [And you can report it] just like reporting a car’s license plate number,” Kenul says.

The drone can also be identified if it is connected to the Internet—say, over a cellular link through its operator. This option can prove helpful if an observer does not have the remote ID app, if the drone is out of range or moving too quickly for the app to acquire its Bluetooth or WiFi signals, or if high humidity in the air is degrading the Bluetooth or WiFi signals.

New drones can come automatically outfitted with such electronic license plates. Old drones can be retrofitted with ID chips that would plug into their USB ports and might cost $7 to $12, Kenul says. When it comes to radio-controlled model aircraft, the remote pilots of these vehicles can use a smartphone app to report the ID of the aircraft and the location and time of operation to remote ID authorities.

Remote ID systems are key to the development of a UAS traffic management (UTM) system, Kenul says. “Everyone knows UTM is important for drone applications, from package delivery to medical delivery, to urban area inspections, to operations after a hurricane,” he notes. “Remote ID is the first building block for UTM.”

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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