Can Drones be Tracked?

If you’re a drone owner like me, the question “Can drones be tracked?” is likely to strike your mind. And why won’t it? 

As this amazing technology takes new dimensions in recreational and commercial landscapes, privacy, security, and regulation-related concerns have also grown in parallel.

This has led to the implementation of a myriad of counter-drone technologies for its safe integration into the National Airspace System (NAS). 

But how can drones be tracked? 

Drones can be tracked using their built-in Remote IDs, radar systems, acoustic sensors, thermal imaging, and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). Radio frequency tracking of drones is also pretty common. 

Continue reading as I explore all these cool technologies in detail and other crucial information, such as the legal aspects of drone tracking and the associated challenges & limitations. So, let’s get started. 

Why Track Drones? 

Can Drones be Tracked?

There isn’t one but many reasons to track these unmanned aircraft due to their ever-growing applications across sectors. Some of them are:

Drone Fleet Management 

Improvements in drone technology have made numerous industries switch to drone fleets to improve processes like aerial mapping, deliveries, inventory management, and more. 

This is where drone tracking helps fleet managers and operators monitor the status, location, and performance of multiple UAVs simultaneously using fleet management software. One example that comes to my mind is Gather AI

Search and Rescue Operations

Drones deployed in search and rescue operations during natural calamities or other emergencies are continuously tracked to monitor their progress in real-time, be it locating missing persons or providing aerial support to the authorities on the ground.  

Law Enforcement & Security

As you know, drones are law enforcement agencies’ best companions for surveillance, crowd monitoring, and gathering evidence from a crime scene.
 
Tracking these UAVs is crucial to maintain accountability, prevent misuse, and, most importantly, ensure they operate within legal boundaries. 

Privacy Concerns

Tracking drones is also highly beneficial in addressing various privacy concerns, as it tracks down their pilot trying to infringe on others’ privacy rights. 

Read this article by Forbes to understand how drones are ‘predators’ of your privacy! 

Regulatory Compliance

Tracking unmanned aerial vehicles, whether flown for recreational or commercial purposes, ensures they adhere to the airspace’s regulations and restrictions, as the FAA sets.

This includes checking on them to confirm compliance with altitude limits, no-fly zones, registration, etc. 

Legal Aspects of Drone Tracking

Tracking drones involves several legal aspects due to the potential risks and concerns surrounding them, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) play significant roles here. 

Let’s learn how.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 

The FAA plays an important role in the United States to safely integrate drones into the airspace.

Due to this, it has implemented several drone tracking regulations and restrictions that ensure every drone can be monitored if a requirement arises. 

Take the example of Remote IDs that all eligible drone pilots must register for by March 16, 2024 (earlier, the deadline was September 16, 2023). 

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

Globally, the ICAO has developed a regulatory framework to oversee drone operations outside of the IFR International Arena.

This framework, with the growing drone technology, evolves to promote harmonization among the Member States to ensure a consistent approach to drone tracking across borders.

Thus, countries can follow the guidelines set by the International Civil Aviation Organization to embrace safe drone operations in their respective airspace.

How Drones Can Be Tracked? 

Drones can be tracked using several technologies, such as: 

Remote Identification 

The FAA requires all drones flown for recreation, business, or public safety to be registered and operated following the rule on Remote ID.

It’s a transmission system that shares the drone’s identification and location information with other parties through a broadcast signal. 

Note: Don’t confuse GPS tracking for drones with their remote identification. While the former focuses on the UAV’s historical flight data, the latter emphasizes broadcasting the drone’s real-time identification information during its flights.  

Besides, law enforcement and other federal agencies also get to locate the control station whenever a drone appears to be flying unsafely or in a no-fly zone. 

Note: Get all the details about Remote ID here. 

Pros

  • Ensures safe operation of drones in the airspace
  • Also tracks down the drone’s operator
  • Eliminates chances of drones being used for illegal activities

Cons

  • Privacy concerns
  • Limited tracking range

Radar Systems 

Radio Detection And Ranging, or radar, as it’s commonly called, is probably the most accurate and reliable counter-drone technology I’ve come across. 

Radar systems use Radar Echo to detect, track, and identify drones. Here’s how it works. 

The transmitter unit emits electromagnetic waves in the form of short radio frequency pulses, which propagate through the air at the speed of light following a straight trajectory.

Upon striking the drone, these propagated waves either reflect from its surface or scatter away in different directions. 

Talking about the waves reflected, called radar echoes or reflected signals, the radar system’s receiver unit captures them for processing.

Here, algorithms analyze the received radar echoes and measure various parameters, like distance, altitude, speed, and direction. 

Pros

  • Suitable for long-range drone detection
  • Real-time drone tracking
  • Not significantly impacted by varying weather conditions

Cons

  • Struggles with small RCS drones
  • Can experience interference from nearby electronics

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)

Not just aircraft but Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is also a reliable technology to track drones. 

It works by installing ADS-B Transponders on drones, which periodically broadcast their position, speed, altitude, and other relevant data to the ADS-B Receivers on the ground.

All this happens in real time, helping operators with a comprehensive view of the drone’s movements in the airspace.

Pros

  • Enhanced safety in and around the airspace
  • Precise and accurate tracking information
  • Easily integrates into existing traffic management solutions

Cons

  • Not suitable for small or recreational drones
  • Vulnerable to hacking

Thermal Imaging

The various electronic components in your drone, like its batteries, motors, ESCs, and cameras, emit a unique heat signature that can be used to track it. This forms the basis of thermal imaging. 

Let’s understand in detail. 

A thermal imaging camera detects the heat signature of your drone in the form of infrared radiation (IR).

Inside the camera, there are special sensors called microbolometers that convert the infrared radiation into electrical signals, producing a thermal image. 

Algorithms process this thermal image over time to track the drone’s movement, including its speed and flying altitude.

Pros

  • Works even in low-light conditions
  • Easily detects drones hidden behind different obstacles
  • Reduced false alarms

Cons

  • Very expensive setup
  • Low resolution of thermal cameras

Visual Tracking

Visual drone tracking works best for surveillance, filmmaking, search and rescue operations, and more.

It’s one of the simplest systems consisting of two main components – camera(s) and computer vision algorithm. 

Let’s understand how a visual drone detection system works in detail. 

The entire mechanism relies on a camera installed over the drone itself or placed in the environment.

Whatever is recorded by this camera is then fed to computer vision algorithms to detect and track the drone’s position, plus its speed and orientation. 

Note: High-end visual drone trackers often include a control system to adjust the drone’s flight and make it follow a specified path.

Pros

  • Higher precision
  • Real-time feedback on the drone’s position
  • Wide range of applications

Cons

  • Privacy concerns
  • Drones must remain in the field of view of the camera for detection

Acoustic Tracking

Lastly, acoustic tracking is another wonderful way to track down a drone in flight using its signature ‘hum’ sound. 

Such a system typically comprises specialized microphones or acoustic sensors to pick up the sound created by the quadcopter’s motors, rotors, or blades.

These sound signals are sent to advanced algorithms for processing, after which the drone’s position is calculated by triangulating the sound source or employing other localization techniques.

Pros

  • Suitable for drones flying at low altitudes
  • Remains unaffected by adverse weather conditions
  • Cost-effective

Cons

  • Limited detection range
  • False positives due to ambient noises

Is There an App That Can Detect a Drone?

Yes, there are several apps that can detect a drone. 

I’ve been using the Aerial Armor drone detection app for some time now and am pretty much satisfied with its capabilities.

Available on both Android and iOS, the app is straightforward in use and has the following three benefits: 

  • Automated drone alerts via text message
  • Live drone detections on the go 
  • Best solution for busy security personnel during large events

Challenges & Limitations in Drone Tracking

The ever-evolving drone technology, combined with the complexity of managing these UAVs, throws various challenges to even the best tracking systems discussed above. These are: 

Size

The biggest challenge or limitation in tracking a drone is its size. Drones with a smaller radar cross-section (RCS) are harder to track, as they get affected by wind more easily, leading to erratic flight patterns. 

Altitude and Range

UAVs flying at a higher altitude or long range require specialized tracking equipment, which is both costly and complex. 

Battery Limitations 

I own a dozen drones, and they all have a very short battery life. For example, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and so on.

While it’s understandable due to their miniature size, this battery limitation restricts the tracking duration. 

As a result, keeping a check on the drones over a long range becomes a challenge. 

Line-of-Sight (LOS)

A clear line-of-sight (LOS) is the foremost requirement for radar and visual drone tracking.

If I talk about urban settings where drones usually fly behind many obstacles, this is a major limitation.

These may include high-rise buildings, trees, metallic structures, etc. If you want to know more about how trees influence drones signal then make sure to read our full guide here.

Cost

A comprehensive drone tracking system poses a significant monetary challenge. To add on, this cost escalates with the number of drones to be tracked. 

Adverse Weather Conditions

Adverse weather conditions, like heavy rain, thunderstorms, snow, and fog, potentially compromise the effectiveness of almost every drone tracking system. 

Radar systems are the most affected, though. This is because the radio frequency waves used for drone tracking either get attenuated or scattered away, leading to reduced accuracy and reliability. 

In addition to the above challenges and limitations, certain drone security measures also cause hindrances while tracking a drone. 

Conclusion

To conclude, drone tracking is an evolving field with a long way to go. It’s still not as straightforward to trace a drone as you might think, with the type of drone, its size, and communication systems being the major challenges. Still, ongoing technological advancements present a great sigh of relief.  

What are your thoughts about drone tracking and its future? I would love to know your opinion(s). 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: Can Someone Track a Drone?

A: Yes, anyone can track a drone. If you’re an individual and want to follow a remote ID-enabled quadcopter flying over you, I recommend Drone Scanner by Dronetag

Q: Can Police Trace a Drone?

A: Be it the police or other law enforcement agencies, both can trace a drone. As per the FAA, all drone pilots must register their UAV and operate it following the rule on Remote ID, beginning September 16, 2023. 

Q: Can the FAA Track Your Drone? 

A: Yes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can track your drone using their Remote IDs. 

Author
Diptesh Das

Diptesh Das is your friendly ‘content maniac’ and drone enthusiastic! Being passionate about content writing. He is a firm believer of the power of words and thereby ended up leveraging them to create an impact by sharing his drone knowledge and experiences.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *