Commercial pilots this year alone have reported a massive 650 sightings of drones close to their aircraft to the Federal Aviation Administration. Only a tiny fraction of those sightings were operator-identified, posing a pretty big safety risk as rogue drone operators continue to operate near airports.
To help curb this problem, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley are testing a kind of license plate for drones, making the operators accountable to the FAA. The "license plate," being called LightCense, uses a series of bright LED lights attached to the bottom of the drone, which blink in a unique pattern and could be detected by law enforcement, identifying the owner of a drone.
The series of lights can be decoded by a smartphone app or specialized camera, providing immediate accountability for any drone that has wandered into an area it shouldn't have.
The news comes as the FAA works to finalize regulations and restrictions for drones, especially as companies such as Google and Amazon put pressure on the FAA because of the fact that they want to use drones for things like package delivery. Amazon and Google have been working with the FAA, creating "traffic lanes" for drones based on things like speed. NASA is working on a drone system of its own, including "no-fly zones," such as near airports.
The use of a drone license plate allows the public to be able to identify a drone that might be bothering them.
"If a drone is bothering people, they're going to call the police, not the Air Force or FAA," says Aislan Fiona, director of the Cal Unmanned Aviation Research Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with the MIT Technology Review.
Currently, the researchers are working on the prototype of the camera that can be used by law enforcement to identify a drone. They are also working on improving the design of the license plate, which will likely take the form of a tough box in the shape of a smartphone, packaging a set of LED lights with a battery and location beacon.
Of course, it would be relatively easy to tape over the area of LED lights, so those actually wanting to cause problems using drones may not be in trouble just yet. It is likely that the LED license plate technology will be combined with location beacons that tell law enforcement where the drone is being operated from.