Ford proposes motor vehicle department in the sky to ID drones

By Patrick C. Miller | March 13, 2018

Researchers with Ford Motor Co. believe that a system similar to the one that links automobile owners to their vehicles and helps to hold them accountable can also be used for small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and their operators.

The automaker recently released a white paper titled “A Zero-Cost Solution for Remote Identification and Tracking of sUAS in Low Altitude Flights” by principal scientist Adi Singh and research engineers James Carthew and Weifeng Xiong. With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimating that nearly 4 million drones will by flying in U.S. airspace by 2021, the researchers say the ability to remotely identify drones is becoming increasingly important.

The Ford team sees parallels between the registration and licensing of motor vehicles and the registration and identification of small UAS. “In ground traffic enforcement, the notion of accountability is derived by relating a vehicle to its owner through a combination of DMV registration and license plates,” their paper says.

The research team recommends that universal identification be part of identifying and tracking small UAS in low-altitude flight. To achieve this, they propose the use of technology based on visible light communication (VLC) developed at the Ford Research & Innovation Center.

One advantage of using signals transmitted in the visible spectrum is that they can be seen in areas lacking reliable radio or satellite connectivity. The serialized blinks broadcast by the drone can be captured by any consumer-grade camera. In addition, the video feed can be postprocessed for decoding the identifier with little overhead.

The white paper says algorithms developed by Ford can reliably identify drones from up to 80 feet away during the day by using an unmodified phone camera. A zoom lens on a digital camera can extend the identification range from 12 to 20 times.

“The approach strikes a balance between the acceptable levels of intrusiveness and the effectiveness of an identification framework,” the whitepaper says. As with automobile license plates, only authorized government agencies could retrieve an operator’s contact information based on a drone’s identifier.

According to the white paper, the light control software can be programmed to transmit the identifier signal when the drone is turned on or when flying. “In a more advanced implementation, the system can disable take-off entirely if the device is not set up with a valid FAA registration number prior to operation,” it says.

The researchers say Ford’s VLC technology is mature and has been demonstrated for years in a range of applications. “Having the capacity to distribute the solution to all users instantaneously and free of cost means the technology can be feasibly adopted across the US within hours to days of its release,” they noted.