In August, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert after consumer drones flew close to commercial aircraft at John F. Kennedy Airport three days in a row. It was part of a pattern: In the last year, close calls between airlines and drones have been rising.
DJI, a Chinese company best known for its popular Phantom quadcopter drone, is looking to use technology to curtail this growing problem. On Tuesday, it updated its existing geofencing feature that automatically prevents its drones from entering sensitive airspace like the area around prisons, power plants, and yes, airports. The updated system adds real-time data related to temporary flight restrictions, which will prevent DJI drones from flying above time-specific restricted areas, such as above a forest fire. The new update also adds a "self-authorize" function in case a user has a legitimate reason to fly in a restricted area.
"The drone will, by default, not fly into or take off in locations that raise safety or security concerns," DJI said in a statement. "However, in order to accommodate the vast variety of authorized applications, the new system will also allow users who have verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorize flights in some of those locations."
DJI's system works using the quadcopter's built-in GPS to compare its location against a map of no-fly zones, a process called geofencing. If it finds that it's in or near a restricted area, DJI's system will warn the user through its app and will refuse to enter the restricted airspace.
Airmap, a startup specializing in digital airspace data, is working with DJI to incorporate the FAA's temporary flight restrictions, such as sports stadiums during events, into its maps. The dangers were made crystal clear at this year's U.S. Open tennis tournament, where a drone crashed into the stands during a match.
Starting in December, DJI drones, including its Phantom, Inspire, and Matrice lines will receive a "mandatory" update that covers both the United States and Europe.
DJI rival 3D Robotics introduced a geofencing feature of its own earlier this week. Smaller players, like Hexo, have enthusiastically supported geofencing in principle but have not fully implemented it in their systems yet.
However, restricting where drones fly can be complicated. A airline company might want to use drones to check on the maintenance of its fleet, for example. In that case, operators can use a phone number and credit card to register with DJI to "unlock" their drone in a restricted area.
Such exceptions may be relatively common. Of all government approvals for commercial drone use, 71% involve DJI hardware.
DJI's push to introduce this feature comes amid expanding government regulation of consumer drones. Last month, the FAA announced that drone hobbyists will be required to register their drones. More information about the process and penalties are due to be announced later this week. Although DJI's new feature doesn't impact FAA's registration plans, it does help to eliminate one major public safety concern related to drones.
"I don't think, and DJI hasn't said, that geofencing is an effort to replace registration, but it certainly fits in nicely, and the timing suggests that there is some overlap there," said Kevin Pomfret, who heads Richmond-based law firm Williams-Mullen's unmanned systems practice.
"It's an example of the industry recognizing there are calls from federal and state regulatory agencies to deal with these close calls and the perceived national security issues with flying unmanned aircraft systems, and maybe hold off on draconian legislation," Pomfret adds.
After the close calls at John F. Kennedy Airport earlier this summer, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would require geo-fencing technology to be "mandated in every drone sold in America." The legislation stalled, but it might not matter because it appears as if the unmanned aerial vehicle industry wants to take care of the issue itself.
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Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that DJI had introduced a geofencing system with its latest update. DJI in fact introduced "no fly zones" in 2013. We regret the error.