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Drones may soon have to identify themselves electronically while in flight

The FAA wants to create a remote drone identification system.

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It can be really hard to tell who is flying a drone, even if the aircraft is flying within a pilot’s line of sight. Just because you can see the drone doesn’t mean you can see the pilot, and when a drone is hundreds of feet in the air, the pilot could be anywhere.

The difficulty of identifying who is flying a drone has sparked alarm among law enforcement, which is one reason why the Federal Aviation Administration has opened a new rulemaking committee to try to find a solution that would allow police to identify drones remotely.

The FAA held its first meeting of that committee last week, and today the agency finally reported on what took place. At the meeting, participants — who included representatives from Amazon, Ford and the New York Police Department — talked about various remote identification solutions currently available, air traffic control for drones and concerns from law enforcement.

Though most drones that weigh over half a pound are registered, and thus should have an identification number on the drone, that ID is nearly impossible to see from the ground.

Not all drones over a half pound are registered, though, since a federal court nixed the FAA’s registration rules for non-commercial aircraft last month, saying the agency didn’t have the authority to require registration of drones that are being flown for fun.

Still, legislation is moving through Congress now that could restore the FAA’s authority to regulate non-commercial drones, which would allow the agency to reinstate the registration requirement.

Registration will likely be necessary for any remote identification system to work, since the drone would have to be listed in some sort of database in order to associate the aircraft with its operator or owner.

Off-the-shelf consumer drones have been used to smuggle drugs and cellphones into prisons by flying over fences. Aircraft could easily be modified to carry an explosive, and there’s even software available that allows drone operators to circumvent geographical restrictions on drones that prevent aircraft from flying near airports or over protected areas, like sports stadiums or military bases.

All good reasons for law enforcement to be concerned about the FAA moving forward with creating rules that would loosen restrictions on drones flying in U.S. skies.

The agency originally hoped it would release proposed rules about flying over people in December of last year, but multiple sources have told Recode that concerns from law enforcement on remote identification is one of the reasons that rulemaking has been delayed.

In March, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, put out a call for proposals for a remote identification system for drones and received 45 unique responses, according to an FAA spokesperson.

DJI, the world’s largest consumer drone maker, submitted a proposal that would require drones to transmit their location and registration number via radio equipment already aboard most drones.

The committee is set to meet again July 18 and is supposed to present its recommendations for a remote drone identification system to the FAA by Sept. 30 of this year.

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