France wants you to put lights and beacons on your drone

Nice idea, mes amis, but what about those bent on aerial mischief?

The French government has proposed a new law making it mandatory for all drones to be fitted with electronic conspicuity beacons – an idea with big implications for the future of drone regulation.

The proposal, written in legal French (a translation of which can be found here) would mandate the installation of beacons on all unmanned aircraft.

It appears to be part of a public consultation exercise by a governmental agency, the Direction Générale des Enterprises (France's version of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) on adding electronic and visual beacons to all drones weighing 800g or more, as part of recent amendments to France’s Post and Electronic Communications Code due to come into force on 1 July 2018.

The proposed beacon would run on the unlicensed 2.4GHz Wi-Fi spectrum allocation and transmit data using the rather elderly 802.11n specification. The machine-translated proposal state that the "the signaling message takes place in the payload part of the Wi-Fi frame 802.11n. The message corresponds to an 802.11n Wi-Fi frame running over a wireless network in AD HOC" and also state that the message payload must include:

  • a code for the drone's manufacturer;
  • the drone’s unique serial number;
  • its latitude and longitude;
  • altitude;
  • the latitude and longitude of its takeoff point;
  • its speed;
  • its heading;
  • and a timestamp for all the above.

The unique manufacturer code will be a trigram issued by French authorities. Each message must be broadcast at intervals no greater than three seconds.

Also mandated will be the fitting of a light visible from 150 metres away, flashing the Morse letter U. The light must not use any of the colours presently used for manned aviation, and therefore will not be using the colours red, white or green. Interestingly, the proposals explicitly state that a single beacon will be acceptable for a swarm of drones.

The Register has asked the French Aeromodellers' Association (FFAM), which told its members about the proposals in its regular newsletter, for comment.

The proposal would not capture some of the smaller drones on the market such as DJI's Spark and Mavic models, as noted by news site Drone DJ.

And what about counter-tracking software?

There are a number of technical proposals publicly available on Github which could interfere with such drone tracking proposals. While some of them appear to have been developed to interfere specifically with Chinese drone firm DJI's proprietary DroneID technology, the concept is portable.

Doubtless British regulators will be looking closely at how industry and consumers take to France's proposals. Britain's upcoming Drone Bill, due for publication in Parliament this summer, has been written to more or less mirror the EU's own drone regulations, as previous legislative moves on this side of the Channel have revealed. Though registration of all drones weighing more than 250 grams will certainly happen over here, the mandatory installation of visual and radio conspicuity beacons may be a step too far for the UK.

Prominent drone industry firms, including Altitude Angel, have told The Register that, in their view, blanketing air traffic controllers' screens with hundreds of low-level drone flights would achieve little in terms of aviation safety. ®

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