Remote identification and tracking of drones – what do Canada’s regulations require?

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Despite the new Part IX of the Canadian Aviation Regulations and drone safety campaigns by Transport Canada, unauthorized flights over crowds and interference with manned aircraft operations by rogue drone operators persist in Canada. According to Transport Canada, the number of reported incidents in Canada more than tripled from 2014 to 2017. There have been at least two incidents where it is believed that a drone struck an aircraft and the number of reported drone incidents has risen since January 1, 2019. This problem is not uniquely Canadian – enforcing regulations continues to be a challenge for transportation departments and law enforcement around the world (for more information on reported incidents worldwide, click here).

Even though many contend that reports of drone sightings and incidents are over-inflated or erroneously made, most agree that the challenges posed by the near anonymity with which a drone can be operated (and potentially cause havoc) must be addressed. A solution to promote the safety of all aviation operations gaining the attention of regulators is the remote identification and tracking of drones. Though “remote ID” capability is not yet legally required in Canada, we expect to see it on the horizon soon.

What is remote identification and tracking?

Remote identification for a drone is the equivalent of a license plate for a car – it provides, by electronic transmission, identifying information from the drone during flight to receiving parties (either on the ground or in the air). Tracking is the process of following the dynamic location of a drone over time. Remote identification and tracking capabilities could provide aviation administrators such as Transport Canada, the FAA, air navigation service providers and/or law enforcement with real-time information about a drone and its pilot (including location, altitude, speed, direction, serial number, registration details and location of the pilot). Although there are still many issues that remain unresolved, including privacy concerns and integrating certain capabilities into drone hardware, remote identification and tracking are promising options to monitor drones in-flight, increase safety, accountability and the ability to enforce the regulations.

Regulatory steps towards remote identification and tracking of drones

Many have called for the remote identification and tracking capabilities of drones, including DJI, one of the leading manufacturers of drones (for more information on DJI’s white paper, Elevating Safety, click here). Although the U.S. and Canada currently require operators to register their drones, neither country has enacted regulations regarding remote identification and tracking (for more information on registering your drone, click here for the U.S. and here for Canada).

i) US

In 2016, the U.S. Congress directed the FAA to issue regulations regarding tracking and identifying drones and their operators during flight by July 2018. Despite Congress’ direction, the FAA has delayed the plans to propose rules regarding the remote identification of drones until December 20, 2019. While the FAA has stated that the rules are well underway, a July 2, 2019 letter from top House Republicans and Democrats that oversee aviation issues to the FAA noted that after the proposed regulations are published, it will likely take up to two or more years to be finalized (for more information, click here).

ii) Canada

In Canada, Transport Canada has not yet commented on whether it will mandate requirements for remote identification similar to the FAA in the near future. However, Transport Canada partnered with a number of research centres to promote research and development of detect and avoid systems, command and control link robustness, and drone detection. Such research is intended to help inform Canada’s regulatory framework for drones as it continues to develop.

In our view, remote identification requirements will be a necessary part of the regulatory framework for full integration of drone operations within airspace. We expect that this will become law before or when beyond visual line of sight regulations come into force in Canada (which are not expected for another few years).

Privacy concerns raised by remote identification and tracking

Privacy concerns will likely remain at the forefront of any regulatory discussion relating to remote identification. Based on the UAS Identification and Tracking (UAS ID) Aviation Rulemaking Committee’s report, the U.S. currently envisions that personally identifiable information will be limited to public safety officials and airspace management officials. However, companies such as Alphabet’s Wing, Kittyhawk and Airmap have suggested instead that an open source program to allow third parties to identify drones near them in real time using a smartphone app may be the way forward. 

For more information on this topic, please feel free to contact Rachael Andrew, Kathryn McCulloch, or any member of Dentons’ Aviation team.

A special thank you to Liz McLellan (articling student) for her assistance in the preparation of this post.