Jeff Alholm: Why the FAA’s Remote ID Proposal Isn’t a Good One-Size-Fits-All for Aviation and Hurts the Workers Who Benefit Most

Published on February 22, 2020

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently proposed its rule to require all UAVs flying in the USA to broadcast Remote ID messages. The FAA’s NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) calls Remote ID “the ability of an unmanned aircraft in flight to provide certain identification and location information that people on the ground and other airspace users can receive”, and details a Remote ID specification that requires every aircraft, and every drone, to continually broadcast its identity and location to the internet using approved USS servers. 

Every drone/UAV on every flight in US airspace will be subject to the Remote ID requirement. The rule also requires US manufacturers to produce only drones that can meet the Remote ID messaging spec, and that a drone can’t take off unless and until it actively connects to the Internet. 

But, drones don’t only fly in US airspace. The aerospace company I founded designs and builds industrial UAVs specifically for indoor flight and for flight in areas where internet and GPS location signals are compromised or unavailable. This is why we believe that the FAA’s one-size-fits-all approach will not work for our industry.

We understand the motivation behind creating an identification system like Remote ID NPRM. The streets are safer when cars have license plates, and the skies will be safer when small unmanned aircraft have identifiers like manned aircraft do. 

Unfortunately, the proposed Remote ID rule, unless it is revised, will cripple much of an emerging industry: UAVs are conducting missions now in and improving safety, security, and efficiency across multiple industry sectors. 

And, the most critical and essential tasks of all may be most affected — emergency responders that can rapidly-deploy a drone to save a life without waiting for signals that may never connect, and industrial teams that send UAVs instead of human teams into dangerous, high-risk, or confined spaces. The ability to navigate into GPS-denied and confined environments is a key advantage of the patented technologies we designed into our indoor drones.

Drones are no longer limited to flying outdoors where GPS beacons are available, or in environments that impede the sensors or connections other UAVs require for stable flight. Digital Aerolus platforms currently conduct missions indoors and underground, inside pipes, culverts, and storage tanks, and in mines and tunnels. 

The airspace for drones now includes in and around nuclear reactors, boilers, in proximity to steel and concrete bridges that block the signals conventional drones need for stable flight, and in many other areas where other UAVs cannot fly safely and stably. The proposed Remote ID rule would effectively hinder our company and others in our industry from advancing our technology, and stop the existing indoor inspection industry in its tracks.

“At the heart of the proposal is national safety and security, especially as it relates to high-risk areas (i.e., large crowds, airports, etc…),” said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“Drones are the fastest-growing segment of transportation in our nation, and it is vitally important that they are safely integrated into the national airspace.” The current commercial drone technology is reliant upon GPS technology; it’s how they’ve navigated since their inception and what this current proposal is built on.”

Yet, our technology changed the rules. We no longer have to imagine if a drone can fly stably without GPS or other external connections. Using our patented Folded Geometry Code™ (“FGC™”) and Mind of Motion autonomous Framework™ (“MMF™”) technologies, UAVs can finally enter and maneuver in areas that previously were not accessible.

These drones protect human lives by performing tasks dangerous to humans, and they offer companies around the world a dramatic increase in efficiency, and safety.

Here’s an example: an American energy company uses drones to inspect its coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants indoors. The company uses drones for these tasks because the overhead of deploying and managing human teams under OSHA or other regulatory requirements is formidable. The spaces are likely to have dangerous dust, asbestos, and radiation.

Today, drones conduct flights exactly like this inside coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. These aircraft are never in FAA-regulated airspace. According to the proposed Remote ID rule, every drone must be manufactured to detect whether they are connected to the internet and to GPS location services, and prevent launch if they are not connected.

Signals connections inside these facilities is never a certainty, and is in many cases impossible. This prevents these companies from deploying UAVs to perform critical maintenance and safety tasks inside their energy facilities.

In short, I believe that the FAA Remote ID rule, as written, unnecessarily constrains manufacturers and customers of UAVs designed to fly indoors and in other signal-denied environments. We recently submitted to the FAA a Position Statement on Remote ID. In it, we outlined changes that will accommodate the existing and future industrial inspection confined space UAV industry. 

We believe our suggestions will allow for future innovation and will help the FAA clarify jurisdiction of airspace that are not clear in the currently-proposed NPRM.

A few of the recommendations we believe will help the Remote ID NPRM:

•  Modify the language of the rule to explicitly state that the rule does not cover areas such as underground or indoors. Acknowledge that in circumstances like flying under bridges, underground, indoors, or other similar situations that the inability to connect to GPS or other location services shall not prohibit the takeoff or safe operation of the unmanned aircraft.

•  Modify the rule to clarify what airspace of the United States will be regulated and not regulated. We believe the FAA does not have the authority over airspace indoors, underground, or inside warehouses, offices, or homes.

•   Modify or remove the section of the rule mandating connectivity to make it clear that if a UAS is flying within the airspace of the US and the USS server is not available, the UAS may still operate. When flying within specific, confined spaces, an internet connection is often available, and firewalls might not allow a connection. 

We believe this portion of Remote ID NPRM inappropriately requires manufacturers to verify the availability of the internet in each use case. UAV operators must be licensed pilots, and they must be responsible for operating their aircraft in a safe and compliant manner.

Forcing manufacturers to only build UAVs that disallow takeoff without an internet connection for broadcasting Remote ID will not increase safety. In fact, this will decrease safety. The ability to deploy instantly and fly without a connection is especially critical to emergency first responders in disaster situations when every second matters. If internet connectivity is unavailable or slow, lives may be at risk. Our platforms are uniquely designed from scratch for such emergencies.

Also, many US companies, hospitals, and government agencies have created buildings with secure firewalls to prevent access to the internet to protect their information and infrastructure from cyberattacks or theft. The proposed Remote ID rule appears to make deploying a drone for an inspection or survey inside these facilities, or in an emergency, becomes impossible.

We recommended revisions to the Remote ID rule that will allow our company and others to develop tomorrow’s technologies for industry. We wish to continue to serve our customers without burdens on the devices we manufacture that will restrict our industrial customers from having and using the tools they want.

The industrial drone industry is growing quickly. Organizations are using drones to perform dangerous tasks instead of risking human workers. Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market analysis firm, reports that the civil UAS industry represents one of the next decade’s leading growth sectors.

Teal Group forecasts the civil UAS industry to triple in size over the next ten years. Much of that growth will derive from UAVs in indoor and confined space applications that, until now, have not been possible with conventional outdoor drone technology. 

The FAA NPRM is predicated upon how the current generation of drones operate. It presumes that the UAVs of the future will fly outdoors and connect to the internet merely because the current generation of drones – a market primarily dominated by foreign manufacturers – must do so.

I hope that the FAA will continue the work of crafting a Sensible Remote ID rule – one that keeps US industry innovation and growth moving forwards, and not backwards.

Jeff Alholm is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. Based in Kansas, he is a six-time CEO with a successful track record of working in the technology industry and start-ups -- including raising over $100 million. He is the CEO of Digital Aerolus.

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