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UAV Transponders and Geo Fencing Are Available – Why Isn’t FAA Demanding Their Use?

February 19th, 2019

I apologize up front for this rant! After my post, “Contradictions Going on with Drone Regulation and Enforcement Are Amazing!” I decided to see if miniature transponders exist. Turns out they do and the video to the right explains how they could work on UAVs. I was pretty calm about this until I noticed the date on the video; 2012!! Model airplanes had transponders before drones became popular!

The other somewhat related article that I’ve recently noticed is that European airports are implementing DJI’s GEO 2.0 geofencing technology in 32 countries.

It appears to me that the US FAA is not even engaged in any of this! I guess on the positive side, it means that here in the US, we can just do what we want with drones.

Update: Feb 23, 2019 – There’s a new player in done manufacturing that adds new urgency to this subject. The Kalashnikov Group, the Russian company that gave the world the iconic AK-47 assault rifle has unveiled a suicide drone (KUB-UAV) that may similarly revolutionize war by making sophisticated drone warfare technology widely and cheaply available. It can fly for 30 minutes at a speed of 80 mph and carry six pounds of explosives. See this article on the WA Post for more details. At least they aren’t available on Amazon yet. Just wait a few weeks.

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14 Responses to “UAV Transponders and Geo Fencing Are Available – Why Isn’t FAA Demanding Their Use?”

  • Very good question indeed. Who is in a position to ask the FAA and expect to get an answer? I think the DJI geofencing should be implemented for all UAVs and all flyers of sUAVs be required to pass a remote pilot’s test and have to obey the same rules and regulations that licensed remote pilots have to abide by now.

    But I was struck by the fact that that transponder is a little large for the average sUAV copter. Even for the Phantom series. But DJI is making smaller and smaller sUAVs, I just bought the Mavic Air as a back up for my Phantom 4Pro and expect to actually use it at least half the time since it is so small I can easily fly it low and in confined spaces more easily that the Pro. I can fold it up and put it in the large pocket of my photojournalist’s vest. So with technology miniaturizing everything, with the right incentives, I am sure they can take the cigarette pack sized transponder and reduce it down to a wad of chewing gum size in which case it would be practical.

    In my market area, we are at least 10 miles from the nearest airport of any kind and that is home to mainly the small Cesna size aircraft. And yet, we frequently have flyers flying lower than the 400′ max altitude of our drones over our valley and our town. The forest service does not fly that low nor do the medivac helicopters. I always have my 3 statue mile strobe on all day when I fly just to make sure I am doing everything I can to be sure other air space users can see my little DJIs. We have so many trees and a lot of noise here in our valley, you can seldom see a fixed wing plane coming let alone hear it before it is right on top of you. And usually coming up from behind so the drone camera can’t see it coming either.

    I think a tiny transponder that will alert other aircraft flying in the air space would be a Godsend to us all and certainly add far more safety to all air space users. And isn’t safety exactly what the FAA claims to be their primary priority? Thus the need for all the rules and regulations that apply to sUAVs and UAVs in general? Bring it on.

  • My turn to rant.
    You obviously have no clue how aircraft transponders or Air Traffic Control (ATC)work.
    Are you thinking about Next-Gen transponders, also called ADS-B, which report GPS positions?
    ADSB “sounds” like a good solution, but few manned aircraft have ADSB-in to detect another aircraft transmitting ADS-B 1090ES (and, incidentally, almost no airline-class aircraft are equipped to receive position reports from other aircraft). Also, ATC can’t see an ADSB equipped aircraft on their screens if it’s too low to be seen by an ADSB Ground Station. ADSB coverage is not guaranteed below 500-ft unless close to an airport. The FAA is installing some low-level receiver stations near congested cities- but full low-altitude coverage is a long way off.
    So, even if in your world ATC could see an ADSB position from the drone and other aircraft in the vicinity, they likely would do nothing. The primary function of ATC is to keep participating aircraft away from each other. Participating aircraft are those on an instrument flight plan (IFR), and VFR aircraft requesting radar services from ATC- which is only provided if the controller is not already overwhelmed with IFR traffic.
    Further, again using your fantasy of an all-seeing ATC, the flight controllers normally filter (I.E. ignore) VFR flights from their screens. But, even if a controller could see both aircraft on his screen, if he/she is not already in radio contact with one of the aircraft, there is absolutely nothing that the controller can or will do.

    The recent rash of unconfirmed drone sightings may reflect the power of suggestion more than actual use of drones near airports. The panic, here, is completely out of any sort of proportion to reality. There is absolutely no factual evidence to support the fear and ignorance around small personal drones.

    Drone Sightings are just that- someone thought they saw a drone. The vast majority of drone sightings are unverified. This is baseless “reporting” that drives drone paranoia. A sighting is not an incident or a threat – it just means someone thought they saw a drone. An analysis of those sightings in the FAA Drone Sighting Database found that only 3.5 percent had any notation of the manned aircraft needing to take evasive action, and none of the reported sightings were verified. (To keep it in perspective, that’s about 0.000866% of the estimated three-million drones sold over the past few years). Any contact or near contact would be a bad thing, but it is the overwhelming exception that the news media wants you to perceive that personal drones are an out of control threat to life.

    There is not one verifiable report of a collision between a small personal drone and a manned civil aircraft. Not one. When it happens, the aircraft crew is probably not going to be aware of it, and the drone pieces will be scattered over a square mile. It is physically impossible for a single personal drone to “cause a plane to go down”. The most damage that one is likely to do is to damage an engine, but the aircraft will continue to a safe landing with the remaining engine.

    Small UAVs do not pose any significant risk to the National Airspace System. “Dangerous” and “invasion of privacy” concerns are ridiculous, driven by paranoia borne of ignorance.

    Keep the risk of personal drones in perspective.

    Today (if this is an average day in the USA):
    1560 people will die from Cancer
    268 people in hospitals will die because of medical mistakes.
    162 people will be wounded by firearms.
    117 Americans will die in an automobile accident.
    98 people in will die from the flu.
    53 people will kill themselves with a firearm.
    46 children will suffer eye injuries.
    37 will die from AIDS.
    30 people will die in gun-related murders.
    18 pilots will report a Laser Incident.
    4 birds will strike aircraft.
    3 General Aviation airplanes will crash.
    0 people will be seriously injured or killed by a small drone accident.**

    Where’s the blood and mayhem to justify the perception that small personal drones are a threat to public safety?

    * I am willing to change my statement if I can receive documentation of any personal drone – aircraft collision in the form of an accident report or an NTSB summary. But, to date I have not found any such documentation.
    ** A band-aid is not a serious injury. CFR 49 §830.2 contains the definition of “Serious Injury” that the FAA and NTSB use in their aircraft and vehicle accident statistics. It is important to hold small UAS accidents to the same metric, otherwise comparisons are meaningless.

    Requiring Geofencing or ADS-B Transponders introduces a host of new problems for the users – mostly cost and weight.

    The FAA can only require aircraft equipment when there is a factual evidence-based reason for the equipment. And, then, they can only mandate it for certified aircraft. Drones are not certified aircraft- they do not have a type-certificate which is where the mandatory equipment list would be documented. Any aircraft manufacturer will tell you that obtaining a type certificate is the most expensive part of designing aircraft. If somehow the FAA decides to type-certify drone aircraft, a process that would take several years, most manufacturers would simply quit the business, and the remaining models would easily start at $10,000 for something like a DJI Mavick or Inspire. Type certification also brings about a whole new level of product liability exposure, which means that the drone manufacturer will have to add a couple of thousand dollars to the base price of their product just to pay into insurance and a legal defense fund.

    Be careful what you ask for- you might get it.

  • ADS-B transceivers are bulky and heavy since they are only being made (and qualified) for much larger aircraft. I sourced a small one for an unmanned rocket I believe that it weighs more than my Phantom 4. It was also at least as expensive as the P4. It also takes some programming for each flight since you have to input an assigned code.

    The FAA works really slow and it will likely be years before there will be a certified transponder for sUAS’s that are also required. It will have to be something way out of their usual chunky, metal box, fits in a defined slot device that they have been specifying for decades.

    *Stephan, if tomorrow one person dies or is seriously injured from a preventable UAV incident, it will be one too many. I’ll be photographing a space craft on Wednesday and the spaceport also has NOTAMS up for additional unmanned rocket flights high enough to require notification for all of the local airports and two military bases. Airspace is going to be very crowded where I am with all sorts of interesting stuff on Wed without adding a bunch of yahoos with drones wanting to get “the shot”.

  • What would be wrong with making it impossible to fly a drone, used just for Real Estate Photography, above, let us say, 200 feet? The FAA says an aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure. So give use 200 feet with a buffer of 300 feet for light weight drones like the ones we have. Saying every drone everywhere has one regulation is just wrong.

  • The mavic air already has geofensing in place. It has a warning area, a warning area that requires an override, and a no-fly area that prevents take off. I have had each occur while using the drone, so I know they work.

    I have to say that I don’t like the idea that those who depend on a drone for income have to get licenses and have all the restrictions. While those who use them for playthings can do whatever they want. It would seem more logical that taking training and getting a license would allow you to fly under conditions where an amateur would not be allowed.

  • @Dave Clark, it’s legal to operate within 500′ of a person, vessel, vehicle or building in the US. In some cases you need to be within 400′ of a building. It is illegal to fly over people that aren’t directly involved. For instance, you can fly over a group of actors if you are filming a movie, but you can’t fly over spectators at an event. I agree that in most cases, 200′ is more than enough for real estate images. There are some exceptions such as a hillside property where you want to get back to capture the entire home/property and because the land is sloping away you wind up being more than the 200′ above ground level. I imagine that the FAA was considering the minimum altitude for aircraft flying VFR away from an airport and decided that drones should be 100′ or so under that. I don’t think they were formulating the altitude limit with any particular mission in mind.

    RE is a pretty simple use for drones. I saw a booth at the NAB show a couple of years ago where a company offered a service to map the radiation pattern for transmitter antennas using a drone. I thought that was a very good idea and 400′ AGL within a 400′ radius might not be enough to do the job.

    @Neal, There isn’t a lot that any regulation can do to reign in somebody that wants to be reckless. I’m not familiar with the codes under the AMA for hobbyists and they might be more restrictive about things such as proximity to airports. What regulations can do is keep commercial pilots from acting irresponsibly if they want to have a business. If clients won’t hire operators without insurance and insurance companies won’t cover drones unless the operator has a current license, it’s a good idea to not do things that can get your license suspended or revoked. Insurance will also not cover flyers if they are doing something against the law, so while getting your license pulled is highly unlikely if you put a toe over the line, if something bad happens, your insurance won’t cover the incident if it’s determined you were being naughty AND your license may get yanked. It’s usually the best jobs with companies willing to pay good money where somebody will be checking on licenses and insurance. Real estate agents hardly even bother and it might take a few publicized cases of them being fined before they start making sure who they hire holds a license.

    Now that I’m older and have things like a house that can be taken away, I tend to stay within the law on things like this so my insurance will pay off if I ever have an accident and not get into a situation where a deputy is coming around to put a “seized” notice on my front door to pay off a lawsuit. Those that have no intention of following the rules aren’t likely to spend the time and money to get a license and aren’t earning a living with a drone that can be a problem. I equate it with gun control laws. Criminals aren’t submitting to a background check and waiting 10 days. They buy a gun on the street and aren’t going to tell The Man about it by registering since the use they have for it isn’t going to be lawful in the first place.

  • Here are my thoughts:

    1) The idea fielded by Peter Daprix of having everyone who wants to fly a drone be required to pass a test and get certified is onerous. It’s just the kind of idea that testing companies love. They’d LOVE all the money from requiring everyone to pay $150 to take a test. L-O-V-E. But the truth is just what Stephen Mann pointed out. There IS no significant threat from drones. It doesn’t exist. Execept in the minds of people who are fixating on the issue and are just “sure” that a threat that requires serious action exists out there.

    It doesn’t. If it did…we’d already have had a couple planes go down from collisions. Not just HAVE collisions…but go down from one. But that hasn’t happened. Which is evidence that no serious threat exists. A incredibly minute threat exists.

    Anyone who is elevating the threat from drone strikes to the level of “serious” needs to be beating the drum of ending ALL air travel at all because Because while there has been nobody in an airplane killed due to a collission with an airplane…there HAVE been people driving along in cars who were killed by AIRPLANES. It happened 4 miles from my house. Just google “Flight 255”. Plane takes off and crashes into Middlebelt road killing the people in the plane, yes…but they took the risk getting on the plane. But it killed the people in CARS too! They did NOT get on the plane. They did NOT take the risk…and their lives were snuffed out by these dangerous aircraft.

    Every single plane that flies within the vicinity of you is a threat to your life. Do you look up at the sky all the time wondering if an airliner is coming down on the ground where you are standing? Are you worried about that?

    No. You’re not. But you know what? That’s actually HAPPENED. The incident rate is greater than 0. People dying from drone collisions has an incident rate of zero. It likely won’t get to incident rate of 1 for 100 years.

    How about this? Since drones have NEVER killed anyone…but planes have…then that means the planes are the greater threat? If they are the greater threat, why don’t we ban them. (Except for law enforcement and military flights of course) Yes. I’m being facetious.

    The truth is that there really is hardly any danger here. Nearly zero. A simple solution would be to keep geofencing up around airports. Let everyone fly at 400 feet or below outside the fence (NO REQUIREMENTS FOR ANYONE TO GET LICENSED) and allow requests to fly pretty much as high as you want once you’re some set distance from a major airport. Nothing’s gonna happen and we shouldn’t put onerous regulations on drone fliers for the non-threat that exists.

    Correction: it’s not that “nothing” is gonna happen…rather it’s that “nothing is gonna happen for 100 years” and that kind of low incidence rate is well within the realm of acceptable. If you believe that it needs to be “incident rate of zero forever” then I expect you to also be 100% pushing for a ban to all commercial air travel. After all…”if it just saves ONE life it’s worth it…right”? Well…we need to save the lives of innocent people in cars on roads like Middlebelt Rd who are just driving along minding their own business and get taken out by dangerous aircraft. Just be consistent in your paranoia.

  • My main problem with all this is the regulations assume you will be going up 300 feet even if you want to go only three inches. I understand if i am going up into or near airspace territory, there needs to be licensing, accountability and insurance etc.

    But, for rep many times we need to be say 20 feet up. I cannot believe there is no distinction between these types of flights and other flights.

    The problem is, drone are very useful at ground level. Think about it like this… there are rc toy cars all over the place, perfectly legal. If i want to do a “slider” shot with a drone in a backyard i now need to go through all the red tape.

    There needs to be some sort of ceiling limit where if you want to fly above then the licensing and regulations actually will apply. They are just rendering useless a completely legit and safe photographic tool otherwise.

  • Here in Canada, anyone who wants to drive a motorised boat on a lake needs a boating permit. Take the test, register the boat, and you’re fine.
    Starting June 1st, 2019, anyone who wants to fly a drone in the air needs a drone operator permit. Take the test (10$), register the drone (5$), and you’re fine. Makes a lot more sense than the old (current) rules that are basically there because the only thing that used to fly were aeroplanes, kites, balloons, etc.

    Transponder-like technology would be great, but I suspect that will take a long time to get here – more likely it will start with optional (maybe internet-dependant) gps locators in-app for certain major companies. And it will take even longer before it becomes a required feature in all drones.

  • The point I was trying to make (but didn’t do a very good job of it) was there’s all these wonderful rules and regulations but no way to catch offenders that break the rules. Sure like other areas, most of us follow the rules and only a handful don’t. But with a drone you can pretty much do anything you want and nothing is going to happen to you, even at major airports.

    The latest FAA requirement is your registration # has to be in plain sight. Yeah, this will be a big help:)

  • @Andrew, While 20′ might be more than adequate for a RE front exterior, 1,400′ might be needed to inspect a 1,000′ tower. I don’t think the FAA wants to have a test for each 100′ of elevation. If they did, I’d want to get the license that gives me the maximum no-waiver altitude so I can accept the widest range of work that I can. Doing one “commercial” job could be more lucrative than a whole day of shooting RE. Anybody doing drone photos/video shouldn’t have a problem with getting licensed. It’s just a COB and the FAA seems to have used that as a boundary between needing a license and not needing one. I’m happy with that. It makes my investment in a drone/tablet/case/extra batteries, ad nauseum a bit more justifiable. There is some barrier of entry to getting into the business and the bar isn’t really set that high that most anybody can’t pass the test and get their license if they really want to. We already see that with people hanging up their shingle as RE photographers and charging far too little to support a proper business. I’m not suggesting that RE photographers should be licensed.

    Again, insurance companies like the idea of licensing. It gives them an out so they don’t have to pay a claim if you get into an accident doing something against those regulations. It also means that you had to demonstrate that you understand those regulations through passing a standardized exam. I expect that a licensed pilot is not as reckless on average. Yes, there are those with poor impulse control that can pass a test, but just that there are fewer that will take the time and pay the money. It’s dead simple. Spend some time studying, pay $150 to take the exam, get the license and be able to up your invoice on many of your jobs. It pays for itself pretty darn fast and they don’t want fingerprints and a DNA sample to put in a database that will be breached twice a year.

  • To those who believe the FAA is being nervous and overprotective about drones, consider this- these aircraft can be up to 50 lbs and flying up to 100mph! And the same license applies to fixed-wing craft, not only multicopters. That’s a lethal weapon, compared to my little Phantom, hovering or panning at a walking pace.

    This was their big mistake, I think. We need a category for smaller, lower-performance drones. I could live with under five pounds and 15 mph, but that might not cover some of those SLR payloads.

  • Maybe the answer to this high-tech problem lies not in regulations, but more technology. Consider this: I operate my drone through my iphone plus, which knows here I am to a fine point. If that location data was shared the DJI controller, it could compute my permitted altitude (possible answers could be 400′, or 400′ above a tower, or ground level (near runways, military and restricted zones).

    Seems odd to me that this sort of location data integration isn’t being done already. Your drone would know where and when it could fly, based on the latest NOTOMs (Notice to Aircraft). Is this what “geofencing” is?

  • @John McMillin, I’m not that far from a small city airport and my Phantom pops up a warning that I have to check a box and confirm that I’ve seen it to fly, but the latest official map show my house in the clear when I checked it a couple of days ago. It would be a tremendous amount of work to accurately map non-circular no-fly zones for every airport and FBO in the US. In my service area, there are several municipal airports, a couple of fly-in home developments, 3 military installations and a former military base that is used for large planes to be stored, stripped and tested. GE was flying a test 747 yesterday with a new engine on the number 2 pylon out of that airport. Very odd looking and strange to see a 747 flying VFR.

    A fair amount of filming goes on at the local airport and I might be able to get some of that work (NOTAMS would be filed, etc) and it could be a problem to have drones that are rigidly locked up and getting them unlocked for wavered flights could be a big problem. If I had to switch craft, it could be impossible to authorize the replacement fast enough.

    The tools available online make it very easy for a RE photographer to look up where an address is and whether flying a drone there is allowed and if there are any lower altitude limits. Strict geofencing is only going to work with mainstream craft like DJI that have it installed. If you are good with RC craft, you can buy a DIY drone on AliExpress that won’t have any restrictions on it at all if your intention is to do something bad. They sell pretty big ones too that can carry a fair size load.

    @Larry, that little Kalashnikov drone seems a bit underperforming. I’d expect something with a wing to have more endurance. There are seemingly hundreds of companies developing drones for military applications with all sorts of capabilities here in the US. This one is pretty tiny.

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