Tesla uses geofencing to adjust the car’s suspension to suit driving conditions. Square uses geofencing to simplify use of their digital wallet. Via GPS technology, clever use of knowledge of time and place can add a touch of magic to the products and services we use.
Conversely, geofencing can be used to restrict operation of a device in certain conditions. This has long been useful for drone operators, for example by defining a maximum flight radius limiting how far away the drone will fly in the event that the pilot loses control.
Drone maker DJI went a step further in May 2014 with a Phantom firmware release that came preloaded with geofenced areas called exclusion zones. The exclusion zones were around airports. A DJI drone loaded with the exclusion database will prevent take off within an exclusion zone. During flight, it will refuse to breach an exclusion zone. In the app, waypoints cannot be set within exclusion zones, 0r in such a way that the planned flight crosses an exclusion zone.
On 26 January in central Washington DC, an inebriated man was showing off his DJI phantom drone to someone at a party. The operator lost control of the drone which crash landed in the grounds of the White House. (Incidentally, the operator was a government employee, working with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA.)
Given the increasing number of drones that are being flown by hobbyists, expect the frequency of stories like this to increase. DJI probably sees this kind of publicity as bad for business: The company reacted by announcing a no-fly geofenced area that coincides with the FAA’s Washington DC Metropolitan Area Special Flight Rules Area (also known as an Air Defense Identification Zone, ADIZ). The geofence has a radius of 25 km around Ronald Reagan Airport in Arlington. The new no-fly zone was part of version 3.10 of the firmware for the DJI Phantom 2 series of drones. The update also introduced exclusion zones around thousands of additional airports. (Note that due to a bug, the firmware update was later retracted. DJI recommends using Phantom firmware version 3.08 for now.)
DJI explains the update to the no-fly zones, starting at 46 seconds into the video.
I have also seen reports that DJI is considering marking areas around national borders as exclusion zones in a future update, presumably to discourage smuggling.
There is no doubt that flight restrictions around airports will help prevent some disturbances to air traffic such as the one in United Arab Emirates last month when planes flying into Dubai were diverted to a nearby airport. Drones are being sold by the tens of thousands to hobbyists, some of whom may fail to follow safety protocol, or even common sense.
Unfortunately, there are also downsides to geofences impeding the operations of civilian drones.
Drone manufacturers who choose to embed exclusion zones into their product’s firmware must make sure that accurate details of all restrictions are openly available for operators when they plan their flights.
At least in the US, you actually can fly close to an airport, provided that you get permission from the tower and adhere to their instructions. With DJI’s current implementation of exclusion zones there is no way to allow flight within a particular zone if you receive special permission.
The risk is that in their eagerness to convince law makers that the industry is safe and capable of self regulating, drone manufacturers who impose geofences will go too far. This could lead to an over interpretation of regulation, banning civilian drones from areas where aviation authorities are not in fact restricting use of small low-flying craft but are regulating full-size manned aircraft. When the FAA set up the Washington Special Flight Rules Area I doubt they had 2 kilogram hobby drones in mind.
Another risk is that governments start leaning on drone manufacturers to impose politically motivated restrictions. In what may have been the first move to hobble civilian drone flights using geofencing, DJI issued a firmware update in July 2013 to its Woo Kong controller, noting that “Flight Functions are restricted within the radius of 15Km from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.”
Expecting new civilian drone pilots to adhere to regulation and safety standards can be a lot to ask, especially since some regulations are temporary in nature such as FDC NOTAMs published at tfr.faa.gov. Quick start guides should make mention of the main rules in the operator’s country and point to where up-to-date information is available. As many hobby drones are controlled via an app, the app itself would be a logical channel for raising awareness of safety issues and flight restrictions, and the app could issue real-time warnings. An example is the Hover app for drone operators: It takes temporary flight restrictions and also weather into account to show in an on-screen dashboard.
No-fly restrictions that are coded into the on-board flight computer are not a substitute for awareness and responsible flying by the drone operator. A quick check of DJI’s flight restriction map suggests that DFW, with seven runways one of the busiest airports in the world covering an area of 78 square km, is covered by a Category A exclusion zone, but nearby DAL, with three runways, does not seem to have an associated exclusion zone (see map below). Further west, Meacham airport is covered by a category B exclusion zone but there is no zone associated with the nearby Joint Reserve Base military airport.
Interestingly, there are questions concerning how all this affects liability in case a drone enters a no-fly zone listed in its firmware. The manufacturer opens themselves up to liability if the steps they have taken to impede operation within a restricted area fail.
Despite technological countermeasures, the human condition is that someone will always find ways to use tools in ways they were not intended. I’ll leave you with an example of someone who strapped roman candles to their drone and chased after their friends.