DJI just made a change to its software that eases geofencing restrictions it implemented years ago — now making it easier for drone pilots to fly over sensitive areas such as near prisons, power plants and airports.
The Chinese dronemaker this week overhauled its “Fly Safe GEO Unlock program” by now allowing pilots to request authorization to fly in sensitive areas through a streamlined application process, which would essentially allow them to receive a code unlocking their drone in less than 30 minutes.
DJI has had geofencing in some form as early as 2013. Geofencing is a software program that creates a virtual “fence” around a drone, preventing it from flying into certain areas. The geofencing limitations were broadly expanded in 2015 in response to the growing popularity of drones — and drone crashes.
Perhaps the most famous example of geofencing being implemented is in Jan. 28, when DJI forced its users to download a firmware update that would prevent drones from flying within a 15.5-mile radius of downtown Washington, D.C. The firmware update was made in the wake of reports that a government employee in D.C. was flying a DJI Phantom at 3 a.m. on and lost control of it, causing the drone to fly onto White House property and crash.
While the news was largely applauded by the drone industry as a means of preventing users from mistakenly breaking the law and getting their drone into a dangerous situation, it was troubling for users who need to fly in restricted areas for legitimate reasons, such as inspecting air craft or machinery.
This week’s update aims to address those concerns by allowing pilots to apply to get around the geofence.
Users in North America and Europe with a verified DJI account will have access to the system. To use it, users go to the portal page, where they’ll need to enter information about their aircraft and controller, as well as authorization documents supplied by the controlling authorities in areas where they wish to fly. If approved, users would be free to fly in areas that are typically blocked to pilots by DJI.
That being said, your data isn’t totally private, should you opt to use the new software — and it could potentially be turned over to the government.
“In the event of an aviation safety or law enforcement investigation that compels us to disclose information, our verification partner may provide information about the credit card or mobile phone number used to verify the DJI account that unlocked an Authorization Zone at the location, date, and time in question,” according to an FAQ on DJI’s site. “This creates a path to accountability in the event of an incident without requiring burdensome up-front collection of personal information, and we feel strikes the right balance at this time.”
DJI has been an important pioneer in geofencing across the broader drone industry. The company has made massive strides in preventing “regular hobby users” from flying drones in sensitive areas through the technology, but has always been careful to make it possible to fly in restricted areas if necessary.
DJI’s 2015 geofencing update allowed users temporary access to restricted flight zones to drone operators if they connected with a verified DJI account and registered with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number.
The goal was that users would have accountability in the event that they flew over a restricted area. Registered users could hypothetically turn off the geofence and fly over a football stadium, but if police found that they were illegally flying over the area, they could connect with the third party who maintains the credit card or phone number data to track down the perpetrator.
However, the unlock function was not available for sensitive national-security locations, including Washington, D.C.
“Our years of actual user experience have shown that in most instances, strict geofencing is the wrong approach for this technology, and instead we are helping operators make informed, accountable decisions,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs, in a 2015 interview with The Drone Girl.
The Federal Aviation Administration has increasingly been making it illegal to fly drones in sensitive areas. Last month, the FAA released a list of new places, primarily coast guard facilities and prisons, where it is illegal to fly drones over. Over the past year, the FAA placed similar flight restrictions over military installations, as well as over ten Department of Interior facilities, including New York’s Statue of Liberty National Monument, and seven Department of Energy facilities.
DJI has seemingly taken a more libertarian stance.
“Based on years of actual customer user experience, we feel that mandatory geofencing that unconditionally restricts device functionality based on geography alone is the wrong approach in most cases,” according to a statement on DJI’s site. “In virtually every area that might be a good candidate for a geofence, we have encountered authorized operators worldwide already engaged in compelling applications. Restricting the use of aerial system technology based on geographic location alone is not a good solution to the concerns that have recently been raised, and will hobble the beneficial future uses of a technology that is still in its infancy.”