drones
The Lazy Artist Gallery / PEXELS

DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, has announced that it is stopping all shipments of new products to both Ukraine and Russia. The Verge reported this on April 27 following earlier stories that Russian troops were using a drone-tracking technology called AeroScope to locate Ukrainian drone pilots flying commercial drones that had been converted to combat use.  And last week, the White House announced that it was asking Congress to pass laws making it easier for government agencies to detect and track drones.

Drones, more formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), have changed from super-expensive military-only devices a couple of decades ago into popular consumer and professional products today. Advances in software and hardware have led to over two million drone users in the US alone, and the repurposing of consumer drones for military uses both by guerilla groups and defenders of Ukraine

Most drones are not autonomous, but controlled from the ground by means of a radio link.  The radio link is the means by which both the controller and other parties can locate and track the drone. In anticipation of the time when radio identification of drones would become a government requirement, in 2017 DJI began to include a signal broadcast from every drone they made which provides the drone’s “position, altitude, speed, direction, serial number, and the location of the pilot.” This data is unencrypted, meaning that anyone with the proper receiver can pick it up. 

DJI also conveniently made available a system called AeroScope, which can receive this data and provide a readout of all drone locations within distances of a few kilometres, depending on the type of system.  Up to now, DJI has sold AeroScope only to law-enforcement agencies and other entities that it deems appropriate for the technology. 

Confirming DJI’s intuition, in 2020 the US FAA issued regulations that make it mandatory for any drone weighing more than 0.25 kilograms (about half a pound) to broadcast its location, the operator’s location, and an identifying number by 2023.  So by next year, all drones big enough to do anything other than entertain the owner will have to have such radio identification means, whether they are new or old.

As an ethics issue, the question of drone identification and location technology has a number of ramifications.  From the Wild-West days when consumer drones were too rare for the FAA to have made detailed regulations, we have now reached the point that drones of any size must be trackable by authorities. 

An analogy

If drone users aren’t doing anything nefarious, it’s hard to imagine why they would object to the requirement that drones must broadcast their identity and location.  A useful comparison might be made to automobile license plates. The first state to issue state-made automotive license plates was Massachusetts, back in 1910.

Most automobile owners back then were glad that the states began to register and license their vehicles, because it freed them from having to follow a hodgepodge of local regulations that often put them at a legal disadvantage with respect to horse-drawn vehicles. 

Massachusetts started their early license-plate numbers with 1 and went up from there.  I don’t know if this is still the case today, but up to 1999 (the last year I lived in the state), it was possible to will one’s legacy two-to-four-digit license plate to one’s heirs, so that your low license-plate number let everybody know that your ancestors were among the first thousand or so people to own a car in Massachusetts. 

Privacy concerns

I doubt that any drone owners are going to get so attached to their drone ID numbers.  But there are real privacy and security issues in the question of who can access the drone ID signals.  Because DJI has not encrypted the data up to now, the company’s AeroScope is simply a convenient way for a law-enforcement agency to get into the business.  I suspect that any well-informed engineer could come up with a similar system by combining the suitable microwave receivers with decoding equipment that would not have to be fancy at all. 

The White House’s initiative seems aimed at giving more government entities permission to do this kind of snooping, and providing them with a list of approved equipment that does so.  There is an opportunity here for entrepreneurs to get in on the ground floor of drone-detection equipment, assuming that Congress responds, but that is an open question.

What is not in question anymore is whether a drone operator can fly with the assurance that nobody can find out whose drone it is or where he is.  That assurance, if it was ever present, is now gone.  And in the vast majority of legitimate-use cases, this can only be an asset to the situation.

As for Ukrainian drones, one must applaud the ingenuity of those who repurposed commercial and amateur drones for military purposes, either for surveillance or actual delivery of weapons. At the same time, it’s not at all surprising that the Russians would use AeroScope or something similar to track down the drone operators and attack them, although at this writing it is not clear whether this has actually happened. One does not see license plates on tanks, and so the requirements of wartime use for drones are very different. 

Drones originated to meet wartime needs, and it’s likely that the US or other allied countries can supply Ukraine with military-type drones that will be far more effective than repurposed hobby-type units. 

Whenever I bring up the subject of engineering ethics in a discussion, if it goes on long enough sooner or later someone will come up with the bromide, “Technology is neutral — it’s only how it’s used that’s good or bad.” 

Like many sayings, this one has an element of truth in it.  But anonymised drones are obviously more suited to warlike uses than ones that constantly announce both their position and the position of the operator. So the cases of drone identification in peace and war shows that this saying is limited in its applicability, to say the least.

This article has been republished from Engineering Ethics with permission.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...