Does DJI’s Geofencing Update go far Enough?

The constant barrage of negative publicity facing the drone industry is more often than not down to two things. The first is the media, which often enjoys taking situations way out of proportion and sensationalizing news to sell papers and drive traffic – how about the plastic bag that ‘collided’ with a plane in London earlier this year? The second reason that the fire of negative publicity continues to burn comes down to the actions of a tiny minority of pilots, who insist on breaching no-fly zones and giving the wider community a bad reputation. Chinese manufacturer DJI has released an update for its ‘Go’ app with improved geofencing, but does it go far enough?

What does the update mean for DJI pilots?

DJI geofencing

DJI can set up new geofencing locations according to local events

DJI’s Geospatial Environment Online software will help pilots avoid flying drones near airports and other sensitive locations. The app will also automatically updated with temporary flight restrictions around wildfires, to help protect authorized firefighting aircraft and ensure fire crews can operate without disruption.

“Safety is DJI’s top priority, which is why we first introduced geofencing technology three years ago and have been steadily refining the industry’s best technology to enhance aviation safety,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs, who led the development of the new system. “Drone pilots want to fly safely, and our GEO system helps DJI customers fly responsibly while also enabling the full capabilities of remotely piloted aircraft.”

On the face of it, this is another positive move from a manufacturer with no obligation to enforce safety features. But there is an ‘opt-out’ option, which allows DJI pilots to disable the ban in many, but not all, cases. The Chinese firm has confirmed it will keep a record of those who use the opt-out feature, and that the move will make it easier for authorized personnel to carry out inspections and other sanctioned activities areas that are normally off-limits.

What’s the point in having an ‘opt-out’ option?

Pilots can opt out of many of DJI's geofences

Pilots can opt out of many of DJI’s geofences

Understandably, DJI is reluctant to enforce widespread geofencing when many commercial pilots may be using its drones for official work in no-fly zones. But, with the industry already facing plenty of public skepticism and relatively strict regulations, is there an element of hypocrisy here? Is it justified to complain about regulations and negative press when there arguably isn’t enough self-regulation? If manufacturers such as DJI have the ability to implement non-optional geofencing, isn’t it in their interest to?

Should manufacturers even be responsible for implementing no-fly zones?

Probably not, no. Enforcing no-fly zone restrictions through geofencing is something that regulatory bodies, in partnership with manufacturers, should take control of. That DJI is doing something to appease regulatory bodies should be commended. But whichever way you look at it, shouldn’t geofencing be an all or nothing application? Either you outright prevent drones from flying where they could be dangerous, or you allow pilots free reign. Having said that, as long as only certain manufacturers include geofencing software, anyone seeking to ‘go rogue’ isn’t going to have any great difficulty doing so.

What does DJI think?

In an interview with the BBC, DJI’s legal affairs chief, Brendan Schulman, reinforced the notion that it’s the drone operator that’s responsible and accountable for their actions. “Just like driving a car, it is up to the operator to be licensed, to have the car registered and insured – the manufacturer of an automobile doesn’t decide who gets to drive or not. Similarly, we have provided a mechanism for operators to take responsibility and verify their accounts and then go ahead and fly in most of these locations.”

The company sees pilots’ ability to simply turn off the geofencing as a balance between safety and innovation. But, as Shulman admitted, “We don’t have the ability to verify if someone has authorization [to fly in a restricted area]”.

Shulman also pointed out that, to make use of the geofencing override, a user must have given DJI their credit card details or a mobile number to act as an ID. This should allow the Chinese firm to help authorities track down rogue pilots. But how accessible will this information be if the authorities do come calling? “Our policy is to provide information about our customers only in response to a valid legal request,” Mr Schulman said. “So, in the US it would be a subpoena or a warrant or a court order.”

Send us your thoughts on geofencing

Do you fly with DJI, or another manufacturer that includes built-in geofencing? Do you think it’s already restricting the freedom of pilots, or does it not go far enough? Let us know and we’ll put together  another piece based on your thoughts.

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