New rules passed just before the new year have cleared a path for eventual drone-based package delivery in the United States, allowing commercial devices to fly directly over populated areas and to operate at night. However, the new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations also came packaged with drone tracking requirements that some of the tech giants are objecting to. Specifically, Google parent company Alphabet Inc. has complained that the radio-based remote ID requirements are untenable from a technological and privacy standpoint.
Delivery giants object to drone tracking details
There has been talk of companies such as Amazon and UPS using drones for rapid package delivery for a decade now, but laws preventing drone flights directly over populated areas and after dark have held up the idea. These new regulations do not clear all of the legal obstacles, but are the first significant piece of legislation along that path.
The FAA’s safety solution is to require drones to continually broadcast a remote ID radio signal that can be monitored by law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security agencies, a measure that was implemented to address concerns about potential use of the devices for terrorism and crime. Drones of all sizes will be required to broadcast when over a populated area, even those that are small enough to be exempt from this requirement when over unpopulated areas.
A limited amount of companies are positioned to initially get into the drone-based package delivery business, most of them giants in the retail and logistics industries. These companies have generally been supportive of safety requirements such as these, with the understanding that such regulations will be necessary to get public opinion on their side. Alphabet is leading the charge in pushing back on the drone tracking particulars, however, arguing that the FAA’s final rule will not work for delivery operations.
Any drone that weighs slightly above half a pound, which would encompass just about all of those that would be used in commercial applications, would have to broadcast its identity on a low-power radio frequency such as WiFi or Bluetooth. This capability will be required to be installed on all new drones within 18 months, and all drones will have to have it in place within 30 months of the finalization of the rule. The FAA estimates that 93% of existing drones can be retrofitted to comply with the new rules with relatively simple modifications.
The delivery companies are opposed to the use of radio signals for drone tracking remote IDs, preferring an internet-based system that uses mobile phone signals to plug into a national network. A network based system of this nature was proposed by the FAA in 2019. This system was heavily criticized by private operators and hobbyists who raised privacy concerns and feared that drones would not be able to legally operate in areas that did not have mobile internet service.
The battle over remote ID
The FAA’s new drone tracking system would obfuscate the remote ID such that operators could not be personally identified by the general public. That has not appeared to do much to quell the assortment of concerns that private operators have, however. The bigger companies are also seizing upon this as a talking point, invoking privacy issues in their condemnation of the new remote ID rules.
Alphabet led the early charge, claiming that observers could still infer private information via drone tracking such as where a customer receives packages from (and how often). Alphabet is developing a drone delivery service called Wing that has run various pilot programs in the US and Australia in recent years.
The current drone tracking debate highlights the fact that there has yet to be a proposed rule for remote IDs that would satisfy all interested parties. Drone manufacturers are opposed to any sort of change on the basis of cost, not only being forced to add new hardware but also to make it tamper-resistant to comply with the new remote ID rules. Enthusiasts are wary of privacy issues and a decreased range of areas in which they can legally pilot their craft; businesses such as Wing may make use of these concerns when helpful to them, but are ultimately focused on cost and what is best for their own logistics strategies. Even law enforcement agencies are not fully happy with the drone tracking concessions, as the new rules do not provide for a standard that integrates with their existing identification databases. And, as was discovered in Wing’s various trials in Australia, the average person on the ground may reject the idea of drone delivery due to noise and disturbance to pets and animals.
However, it is estimated that it will still be some years before drone delivery fleets take to the skies on a broad scale. While the drone industry is now in the clear in terms of federally regulated airspace, it must still contend with the unique drone laws of each state and locality. Tech companies want drone delivery because it can potentially make the cost of each unit’s delivery so low that nothing else is viable; however, compliance costs in dealing with this massive patchwork of local regulations could drive that price up to where it stops making financial sense (as could safety and security issues). And this is before one gets to potential privacy and trespassing issues as drones cross private property and engage in operations over people, something that existing legal precedent does not adequately address. The FAA also has separate regulations that require “airworthiness” of any vehicle used to deliver items in this way, a standard that commercial drones presently do not meet.