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Can Drones Be Tracked?

6 mins
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Have you ever stopped and thought about whether the government or other organizations are watching or tracking you when you’re flying your drone? 

It wouldn’t be a revelation to think that at least the manufacturer of your drone would have the capacity to monitor where you are flying your drone.

For example, DJI have their own geofencing systems in place and alert you when you are about to take off in or near a restricted zone, but is this the only way drones can be monitored or tracked?

Are there other technologies out there that can spy on you flying your drone?

Well, the simplest way of tracking a drone is to watch it flying and see where it goes, but some systems are being introduced with advanced technologies for tracking drones.

Some types of drone tracking technology include Remote ID and thermal imaging. Radar detection, acoustic detection and radio frequency detection can also be used to track drones.

Remote ID #

Governments in several countries are rolling out the requirement for Remote ID. This is a transmission system that sends out signals carrying information such as a drone’s position, velocity, and any registered pilot details.

These signals can be received by manned aviation systems to alert them that a drone is nearby. This system is designed for safety, to reduce any risk of manned and unmanned aircraft incidents, and to protect people’s right to privacy.

However, many believe that flying their drone is a private activity and should not be monitored, particularly if it is over their own land.

For example, a recent US court case between RaceDayQuads (RDQ) and the FAA saw RDQ raise some big questions about whether Remote ID was unconstitutional and how Remote ID data would be used.

It was noted that third parties would likely be involved in the manufacturing and management of Remote ID devices. What would they be able to do with drone data?

Radar detection #

Radar detection is another means of detecting aerial vehicles.

Radar is by no means a new technology, but it is still used in military and commercial aviation to identify the presence of moving objects, and larger drones can also be detected by this technique.

However, many drones are small and light enough to not be detectable by radar. 

Some drone operators might also be familiar with LIDAR. LIDAR devices use infrared light detection to identify the position of objects and surfaces within particular distances of the device.

These are being used more for drone mapping and scanning. However, this could also be implemented to identify drones.

Acoustic drone detection #

Acoustic drone detection is also listening out for drone activity. Acoustic systems merely try to detect the “drone” sound of a drone in flight due to the consistent hum that a drone makes in flight.  

Acoustic systems then determine the position of the drone by sweeping a directional microphone around a point to determine the direction in which the sound of the drone is loudest. 

Whilst some sound filtering and manipulation can be used to focus the audio on particular propeller sound frequencies,  it is likely difficult to listen for drones in built-up areas where there are potentially hundreds of systems making similar sounds.

Radio Frequency (RF) detection #

All wireless drones operate using radio frequency (RF) communications. For modern drones, these radio frequencies typically fall within 900MHz, 2.4GHz, and 5GHz frequency bands.

By tuning in to these frequencies with RF sensing equipment, a user could determine the presence and direction from which radio waves are being emitted. This could indicate the presence of a drone.

However, as most modern radio communication links for drones are digital, the radio signals would need to be decoded in order to fully determine the information being transmitted. 

Due to the dispersion of radio waves as they propagate through space, it would also be difficult to accurately determine and track where a drone might be using radio frequency sensing alone.

That being said, DJI’s AeroScope system has been used to identify and locate drone operators using RF detection technologies.

However, DJI’s system is only able to accurately identify drone location and pilot data because, according to DJI’s Official Blog “Viewpoints,” every DJI drone automatically transmits AeroScope information. 

AeroScope information is also the foundation for Remote ID in DJI drones.

Law enforcement and security services have used the AeroScope system to fend off drones at major public events, such as the Cannes film festival.

Thermal imaging #

Thermal imaging is another technology making its way into drone tracking systems. Drones have a unique heat signature due to the way they move air.

However, thermal imaging has similar limitations to other visual tracking technologies in that the drone needs to remain in the field of view of the thermal camera to be detectable.

There are a few smart systems that have this covered, though. An example of such a system uses 360-degree thermal cameras to identify and track drones.

» MORE: I Just Found a Drone – What Should I Do With It?

Artificial intelligence #

Artificial intelligence could also be used to track drones. For example, computer vision systems could be trained by machine learning to identify the presence of a drone in a video frame.

You could be flying in an area with CCTV. Such a computer vision system could be trained to identify drones and thus identify your drone within its field of view. It could then alert security or another agency that a drone is present in that area.

As noted above for thermal imaging, a limitation with this system is that if the camera can’t pan or tilt, it could only identify drones that come into its field of view.

Drones also tend to move quite quickly and could be difficult to track and identify if the drone passes by in just a few video frames.

So, in summary, there are systems out there that can and are being used to track you and your drone.

With everyone and their nan now putting information about themselves online for the world to see, it is no surprise that drone data is also being shared. 

Whilst systems like Remote ID come from a place of safety and concern for other aircraft and members of the public, there will no doubt be others using such information for the exact opposite. 

Unfortunately, these systems aren’t going away anytime soon, and if you want to fly any off-the-shelf drone, it’s going to be difficult to avoid having to implement these systems.

However, assembling your own drone is one way to “beat the system” because you can pick and choose the exact components you want to use.

However, the legalities of not implementing systems like Remote ID may present some issues to such rebellious thinking in the future.


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