License Plates for Drones? A Modest Proposal

License Plates for Drones? A Modest Proposal


Written By: John Blair
COO and Board Member


Cars have them, why not drones? In this paper I propose that drones carry two types of identification, a physical tag and an electronic one. I believe this is an opportunity for the drone industry to establish some self-regulation ahead of the government doing the job for us.

What’s the problem? Increasingly we hear stories about drones flying, (and sometimes crashing), in places where they shouldn’t be. Drones are being used in improper and in some cases, unsafe ways and often we never identify the responsible party. Chris Anderson at 3D Robotics calls this “mass jackassery”. As the number of drones is now increasing by millions annually the potential for more misuse is a growing concern.

Self-Regulation – The UAV industry has grown through innovation without much regulation and most of us like it that way. However, as drones share the national airspace with other aircraft it is clear that there needs to be a few common sense rules. The drone market has grown faster than regulations to oversee it but I believe it’s time for the industry to do something before others, (ie government) do it to us. In recent drone related forums, readers have been asking the manufacturers to step up and assume more responsibility for reducing improper use.

So what’s the answer? There are numerous ways that could identify people misusing drones or limit improper drone operation including: education, geofencing, altitude limiters, flight log tracking, ADSB, operator licensing, and more. Some would include hardware changes, others could be implemented through software, and still others require ongoing management oversight. I would like to save discussions on the merits of these solutions for another time and focus on one very simple change that could be implemented fairly quickly and at low cost, namely the adoption of two types of drone ID’s.

Physical tags – Manufacturers could place a serial number on each drone and register the owner when it is sold.


This one is straight forward and easy to implement. Plus we have years of experience registering automobiles from which we can draw best practices.

When a drone is lost, stolen, or found crashed in a sports stadium, its owner can be readily identified

There are details to be worked out about keeping records current, change of ownership, wholesale sales, DIY builders, etc. but all are fairly simple and economical to resolve through online systems. I promise, no standing in line at the drone DMV!

Electronic tags – Virtually all drones have some sort of telemetry to communicate between drone and base station. I propose adding an encrypted data stream consisting of manufacturer ID, serial number, GPS location, altitude, and direction that could be sent from the drone every 10-30 seconds while it is in flight. These data can be ignored by ground stations but through a simple-to-build handheld device, authorities could capture the information and then take appropriate action. So the next time some miscreant flies over a sporting event, his information can be captured and easily identified.

Additional work needs to be completed to determine ‘who’ should have access to these data and how to interface with manufacturer’s databases, but once again, a few common sense rules and systems could solve these issues. One big issue that needs to be determined is the penalty for misuse.


Too Simplistic? – Maybe, but while this solution won’t solve misuse by people intentionally trying to foil the system, I believe that it will help us identify the vast majority of people who are either inadvertently or intentionally operating their drones recklessly. We could hope that knowledge that their drone is being tracked, could act as a deterrent for some of the “jackassery” crowd if they knew they were facing stiff fines or worse.

Finally, please note that this proposal is not intended to solve all the problems associated with drones, merely focusing upon the identifying those responsible for misuse.

Next Steps? – Ultimately the key will be to get buy-in from the major manufacturers. And as a group we should solicit input from users, regulators, and authorities before any final decisions are made. But first we need to see if members of our drone community are interested in pursuing this idea. If there is enough interest, we can use some of the industry forums to gain consensus on approach, and then as the old Nike commercial espoused, ‘just do it’.

What do you think? Feedback is appreciated, email me at or comment here on this post. I promise to provide an update with your good suggestions included.

Event 38 designs and manufactures drones, specialized optical sensors, and a cloud based Drone Data Management System-TM for small and medium sized businesses. Today we have customers in 49 countries using our products for agriculture, surveying, construction, environmental preservation, and other applications. For additional information please contact us at or

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