Remote ID Law for Civilian Drones Does Not Violate the Fourth Amendment: DC Circuit Court

Remote ID Law for Civilian Drones Does Not Violate the Fourth Amendment: DC Circuit Court
Two drones manufactured by Chinese company DJI fly near each other in Miami on Dec. 15, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Naveen Athrappully

A federal appeals court ruled unanimously in favor of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday, stating that the mandatory remote identification of civilian drones does not violate the Constitution and that “free-for-all” drone usage is a threat to public safety.

The remote ID rules require drones to provide location and identification information during flight, which the FAA likens to a digital license plate.

For drones that lack a built-in mechanism for remote ID, operators can attach an external module.

The FAA argued in the case that the remote identification would “address safety, national security, and law enforcement concerns regarding the further integration of these aircraft into the airspace of the United States.”

With remote ID, law enforcement can identify the control station of a drone if it’s flying in a prohibited area or in an unsafe manner.

Tyler Brennan is a personal drone user and owner of a RaceDayQuads, a store dedicated to “first person view” drone racing. Participants in FPV racing attach cameras to the front of their drones and race them while viewing their progress from the video feed.

Brennan filed a lawsuit against the FAA over the remote ID rules, claiming that law enforcement agencies could use the ID information to keep drone users under continuous surveillance, thereby violating the Fourth Amendment.

Even if an operator used the drone from a private place like their own home, remote ID would reveal their location and identity, Brennan argued. He also set up a GoFundMe page to finance the lawsuit, collecting $83,100 in donations.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a 3–0 decision on July 29, with Judge Cornelia Pillard writing the opinion (pdf).

“Drones are coming. Lots of them. They are fun and useful. But their ability to pry, spy, crash, and drop things poses real risks,“ Pillard stated. ”Free-for-all drone use threatens air traffic, people and things on the ground, and even national security.”

The judge went on to say that the limited, local, real-time information that will be shared in accordance with the remote ID law is “a far cry from the continuous surveillance the Supreme Court has held violates reasonable expectations of privacy.”

Remote ID Rule and Security

The remote ID rules were finalized in January 2021 and added to the federal register two months later. The FAA gave manufacturers 18 months after that to start production of standard commercial drones with remote ID capabilities, and all new commercial drones must be manufactured in compliance with the law starting Sept. 16, 2022.

Sara M. Baxenberg, an attorney representing the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing in favor of the remote ID rules.

“The question of who owns the airspace in the age of drones will continue to play out across a variety of fora. But I’m pleased the DC Circuit upheld the Remote ID rule, thus eliminating what would have been a regulatory roadblock to additional enabling regulations for drones,” Baxenberg said in a Twitter post after the ruling.

The court decision comes as Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) have recently introduced legislation that would boost government authority to counter any threats posed by drones, such as when drones are flown near airports, sometimes disrupting flight schedules.

Reuters contributed to this report.