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Dronetag Beacon Remote ID Module Review
This is a review of the Dronetag Beacon Remote ID (RID) module. It's one of the first add-on RID modules to meet the FAA requirements for Remote ID on drones that were not factory-equipped with RID. It also meets the corresponding EU requirements.
In a nutshell, this device broadcasts a Bluetooth signal containing the flight information that drones will be required to broadcast as of September 16, 2023 to be in compliance with 14 CFR Part 89.
In the case of add-on modules like this one, that information will include the drone's identity, current location, altitude, heading, speed, and takeoff point. Drones that come RID-equipped from the factory also transmit the operator's current position.
The Dronetag Beacon is a broadcast module, meaning that it sends out the signal locally using Bluetooth on the 2.4GHz band, but does not use a cellular or mobile data connection (nor does it have that capability). If your operation requires a network RID module, you need to look at something like the Dronetag Mini, which does have mobile data capability.
Initial Impressions and Basic Information (June 26, 2023)
I only received this module a few days ago and the weather hasn't been flyable for most of that time, so this review will be updated as I have more opportunities to fly and more time to write. This initial post is based on opening an account with Dronetag, activating and installing the module, and sneaking one test flight in during a break in the weather.
Size, Shape, Weight, and Construction
The Dronetag Beacon is made of plastic and weighs 0.56 ounce (16 grams). It measures approximately 1.5 inch (36.8 mm) in length, 1 inch (25 mm) in width, and 0.6 inch (16 mm) in thickness.
Externally, the module has three LED indicator lights, a Micro USB charging port, an optional external Bluetooth antenna port, and a port for a dongle that apparently is used only if the firmware needs to be restored. There also is a single button that is used to turn the module on or off, as well as to start or end a flight.
The module's Bluetooth and GPS antennas are built-in and located inside the housing. An external Bluetooth antenna (which is not included) can also be used to increase the range of the signal, but is not required for compliance.
The manufacturer claims a battery life of 8 to 16 hours from an internal, 3.7 volt, 200mAh LiPo battery. I have achieved in excess of eight hours between charges. Recharge time is claimed to be two hours from a fully-discharged state. I have recharged the device in about an hour from a partially discharged state, so the manufacturer's claim seems to be accurate.
The size of the module may make it a challenge to install on smaller drones without blocking the drone's GPS antenna or interfering with remote control link signal. I looked at the FCC's tear-down photographs of my Autel EVO II Pro 6K to identify two suitable locations. I'm using the location on the nose for testing purposes.
Registration and Activation
Dronetag also requires only an email address and password for registration (everything else is optional), and allows users to delete their accounts at any time. Those factors made me feel better about the privacy aspects.
I created the account by downloading the app onto my iPhone and providing my email address and a password. Once I created the account and granted it Bluetooth and Notification permissions, I turned on the module. The app immediately found the module and asked if I wanted to add it to my account, which I did. So that part was painless.
The Dronetag App
I also had concerns about having to use an app, also for privacy reasons; but the Dronetag iOS app didn't ask for any bizarre permissions. It asked only for Bluetooth and Notification. "Advanced analytics," however, is enabled by default; but it can easily be disabled with a slider in the app.
Another plus for me was that the app also runs on my iPad Pro. I prefer running specialized apps on the iPad, only when I'm actually using them. Unlike my phone, my iPad isn't with me, turned on, and connected to the Internet everywhere I go.
Because of the non-stop rain the past few days, I really haven't had much time to explore the app in actual use. Here's what I can say for now based on the one test flight I was able to make:
- The app seems to get its location data from the module, not the mobile device.
- There are three map layers to choose from: A standard Google map, a POI map, and a satellite map.
- The app provides flight planning capability.
- The app claims to alert the user to airports, controlled airspace, special-use airspace, other drone's flight paths (if their pilots have made that information public). I have not had an opportunity to test that functionality, and probably won't for some time because I live and work in the boonies.
- The app provides information like the drone's location, altitude, speed, and heading. All of it agreed with the information that my Autel Smart Controller displayed.
I wasn't able to test the device's Bluetooth range because the weather turned bad again. Given that Bluetooth isn't famous for its long range, I'm not expecting miracles.
Update: June 30, 2023
I had a chance to do some more test flying yesterday. The conditions were horrid for revenue work due to smoke from the Canadian wildfires, but within minimums for test flying. For this test I used the Dronetag and ran the app on my iPad Pro, which does have cellular, but which had a very weak mobile signal at the venue. Consequently, it took quite some time for the app to connect to my account and load my settings. Otherwise, it worked fine.
In terms of the flight itself, the Bluetooth connection remained stable at distances up to 1200 feet (about 366 meters), which was as far as I flew yesterday. That range frankly shocked me. I was expecting that I would get less than half of that before the signal disappeared.
The range did come at the expense of instantaneity, of course: Long-range Bluetooth sacrifices burst speed for distance. That's a limitation of physics, not of the Dronetag device. We don't need instantaneous data updates to be in compliance (nor for any other practical reason that I can think of), however; so a little UI lag for a lot of distance is good trade-off in my book.
Update: July 1, 2023
Earlier today I tested the Dronetag Beacon in an area with no mobile signal. The short report is that functionality is reduced without a mobile signal, but the module does put out enough information to remain FAA-compliant. Here are the details.
With no mobile data connection, the app reported that it had no Internet connection and therefore:
- Could not sign me in to my account (of course).
- Didn't remember the aircraft associated with the module.
- Didn't remember my preferences (for example, Imperial units as opposed to metric).
- Wouldn't allow me to start a flight by tapping the "Fly Now" button on the app.
However, when I manually started a flight by pressing the button on the module, it did transmit all of the information that is minimally required to comply with FAA requirements.
It would be better, of course, if the app saved the user's profile information to the device while it had a connection so that information could be used to create a flight where no mobile data signal exists. But as is, it will keep you legal when flying in an area with no data provided that you manually start the flight by pressing the button on the module itself.
Summary Update: July 19, 2023
This most likely will be the last update because the short story is that the Dronetag Beacon does what it's supposed to do. I've decided to keep it, and have built a custom mount to allow the Dronetag and the anti-collision strobe light to be used at the same time.
The most-important facts are that the Dronetag Beacon is well-made, has excellent battery life (in excess of eight hours in my tests), consistently broadcasts the information necessary to be in compliance with FAA's Remote ID requirements, and has a stable iOS app that works well on both iPhone and iPad and is not privacy-invasive.
The specific mobile devices I used for testing were an iPhone 13 Pro Max and an iPad Pro 11-inch with cellular. (I didn't test the Android app because I don't have an Android.) All of the tests were conducted using an Autel EVO II Pro 6K drone (V1) and the Autel Smart Controller.
The only criticism I have is that the app functionality is severely limited when operating in areas where no mobile data signal is available. User preferences and saved drone information are stored in the cloud, but not saved to the device (at least not as of this update). Saving the information to the device (or at least offering that option) would be a significant functional improvement, in my opinion.
Nonetheless, even without mobile data, the telemetry can be started manually by pressing the button on the module; so even without a data signal, the device does broadcast the information required for minimal Remote ID compliance
My nutshell summary: If what you want to do is make an older drone Remote ID compliant, then the Dronetag Beacon will do that for you. The only improvement I can think of would be synchronizing the user data, preferences, and aircraft information locally to the mobile device, rather than only to the cloud.
This will be my final update unless there is something new and significant to report.
Revised August 20, 2023 (Retroactive edit to June 26, 2023 battery life information).