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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working on establishing rules for private and commercial operators of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). However, it is still unclear whether the rules will actually enforce safety and privacy issues when we are surround by a flock of drones.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are now testing a kind of license plate for drones they think could help make drone operators more accountable. The project, called Lightcense, involves a rectangular array of bright, multicolored LEDs attached to the underside of a craft. The LEDs blink a unique pattern that could be looked up in a database by law enforcement to identify a drone’s owner.

Aislan Foina, director of the Cal Unmanned Aviation Research Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that the LED license plate is designed to be decoded by a smartphone app, specialized camera equipment in the hands of law enforcement, or even memorized by someone who spies a drone that’s up to no good. That would provide an urgently needed public accountability mechanism lacking today.


Foina says a license plate model would be more appropriate for the way drones are set to impinge on public space. “If a drone is bothering people, they’re going to call the police, not the Air Force or FAA,” he says. A visual tag also works better than a radio beacon in a situation where multiple drones are in the same area, Foina adds.

Furthermore, at nighttime, the license plate would be distinguishable to the naked eye from a 100 meters, and from a distance of 150 meters, a smartphone application could be used. The size of the license plate will about the size and shape of a smartphone, to which will be added a standard aircraft location beacon and a battery. The bonus is that the license plate will still be working even if the drone has crashed.

But this idea isn’t without its problems, like having the UAV operator be able to improvize a cover for the license plate, remove it or build a drone themselves with no means of identification. Foina predicts a better future and claims that the very fact that license plates have worked with cars proves that the concept will work. “If a drone’s not blinking you would know it’s not coӧperating with the system, and that’s suspicious,” he says.

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