Drones Already Have License Plates (You Just Can’t See Them)

By Eric Stanculescu, The Wireless Registry

November 6, 2015 — Fun and increasingly affordable, recreational drones have become hugely popular in recent years. As many as a million new consumer drones could be sold over the 2015 holiday season. But with more drones taking to the skies, the number of incidents surrounding their use has also increased. These range from mildly amusing (like the one about the drunkenly crash-landed drone on the White House lawn) and quite alarming (aerial firefighting efforts in California interrupted because people were using drones to film the action), to terrifying (at least for the airline pilots who spotted drones out of their cockpit windows).

In light of such events, and in view of the approaching widespread commercial use of drones, it comes as no surprise that the Department of Transportation recently announced the convening a task force, under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to outline a system for registering drones (or ‘small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,’ as the regulators call them).

At The Wireless Registry, we can’t help but note that most consumer drones come equipped with WiFi. Each of those signals is constantly announcing ‘Hello, I am here’ through its unique signal identifier (MAC address).

By including the registration of those unique, individual MAC addresses as part of a drone registry, regulators could solve a number of immediate practical problems, including identifying a drone upon detection (by an app on a smartphone or by a wireless router, for example) and rapidly matching it to other information in a registry, such as its operator or owner. Each drone’s static wireless identifier would act as a ‘digital license plate’ tied to that device, at little cost and minimal burden to consumers, the industry, and regulators. This offers a variety of management and control possibilities, with the obvious example being selective no-fly zones based purely on the detection of a registered drone (by a wireless router, for instance), across manufacturers and models, and without the need for any GPS-based geo-fencing.

Like any IoT gadget, however, a drone’s wireless identity is not just a static MAC address. Rather, it is dynamically built and modified, over time, in relation to the other wireless devices the drone detects and that detect it as it moves through the real world. This broader notion of wireless identity looks to the exciting future of drone technology. It encourages innovation and supports the development of the next wave of complex use-cases, particularly with increasing commercial applications, including authentication and security, analytics and traffic management, and more.

For example, in the future, your smart-home may determine whether an approaching drone is trustworthy, based on its ties to a certain retailer or usage patterns indicating that it has made deliveries to this or a neighboring house in the past. Law enforcement could be alerted to a drone approaching a no-fly zone based on complex criteria. Both the industry and regulators could leverage usage and traffic patterns of drones relative to one another to optimize air traffic control, or for data and analytics purposes.

To enable these uses, The Wireless Registry would act in its role as the centralized database of wireless identifiers. Our existing API ecosystem, in turn, provides the infrastructure upon which both immediate static and future dynamic identity use-cases can be built for, by, or around the drone industry — designed with privacy controls from the ground up.

The FAA’s task force includes representatives from big players in the drone industry, and regulators have invited comments from interested parties and the general public. You can learn more about the FAA’s initiative and submit comments of your own here. (The Wireless Registry’s detailed public comment on registering drones’ wireless signals will soon appear on the same site).

Like what you read? Give Wireless Registry a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.