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US researchers urge uptake of 'licence plates' for drones

21 August 2015

With growing numbers of incidents involving close encounters between commercial aircraft and drones, some are now calling for some form of identification for drones.

Pulsing LEDs on the underside of drones could function as 'licence plates' that allow law enforcement to trace the operator of a craft endangering safety or privacy (image courtesy of MIT Technology Review)

So far this year commercial pilots in the US have reported 650 sightings of drones near their aircraft to the US Federal Aviation Administration. In only a tiny fraction of those reports was the operator identified; moreover, complaints of drones causing danger or invading privacy are likely to grow as the small aircraft get cheaper and more capable.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are now testing a kind of licence plate for drones they think could help make drone operators more accountable. The project, called Lightcense, involves a rectangular array of bright, multi-coloured LEDs attached to the underside of a craft. The LEDs blink a unique pattern that could be looked up in a database by law enforcement to identify a drone’s owner.

The LED licence plate is designed to be decoded by a smartphone app, specialised camera equipment in the hands of law enforcement, or even memorised by someone who spies a drone that’s up to no good. That would provide an urgently needed public accountability mechanism lacking today, says Aislan Foina, director of the Cal Unmanned Aviation Research Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

The FAA is working to finalise rules for people and companies using drones commercially. Many US companies, including Amazon and Google, are making plans for services such as package delivery by drone, or drones for surveillance or crop inspection, but it is still unclear how safety and privacy will be enforced when flocks of drones surround us.

NASA is working on systems to track and manage drone air traffic. Some manufacturers program their craft with 'no fly' zones - for example, over central Washington, DC. Others argue commercial drones should adopt radio locator beacons like those on conventional aircraft.

The Berkeley researchers first tested their idea by modifying a drone made by the manufacturer 3D Robotics with extra electronics and high-brightness LEDs. In daylight, the licence plate’s pattern could be identified by the naked eye from about 100m away, and at 150m using a custom app on a smartphone augmented with a cheap zoom lens.

The researchers are now working on a prototype of a special camera that could be used by police to read drone licence plates. They are also finishing an improved licence plate design, in the form of a tough box roughly the size and shape of a smartphone that packages together an LED licence plate with a standard aircraft location beacon and a battery.

Adapted from an article that first appeared in MIT Technology Review.


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