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Consumer drone company DJI has created a broad no-fly zone over nearly all of Iraq and Syria, an apparent attempt to prevent ISIS from using its drones for terrorism.
These “geofences”—which use embedded GPS software to prevent drones from taking off or flying in certain areas—aren’t just used to prevent terrorism. They’re also used to prevent drones from flying near Tiananmen Square, American airports and prisons, and a 15-mile radius surrounding Washington DC. In other areas, only “authorized users using a DJI verified account” may fly.
From DJI’s perspective, it makes sense to do as much as it can to prevent a potentially catastrophic drone-plane crash involving one of their drones. With geofences, it can also show the Federal Aviation Administration that it’s making a good faith effort to require its customers to fly safely and within the agency’s regulations. However, DJI’s geofences present a restriction on owners’ property rights.
“You can’t drive on a military base, even if you own your car,” Jason Schultz, a law professor at New York University told motherboard.com. “But the mechanism of restriction is one that transfers control over the option to violate the restriction to the manufacturer, not the owner. So instead of taking your chances, you never had a chance.”
It’s not hard to argue in support of geofences, few people want hobbyists flying drones near airports and fewer want ISIS using them at all. But even DJI admits that its geofences are unpopular with a certain subset of the drone community. “I’m sure we’ve lost business because of this. There are people who have bought drones from other companies because they don’t want a system telling them where they can fly,” Adam Lisberg, DJI’s North America communications director said on the subject.
For those who have more sinister intentions in mind, DJI’s geofence system is relatively easy to circumvent. Users can turn the GPS mode off, and DJI will have no way of knowing where a drone is being operated. Pilots can also avoid updating their devices with firmware that enables geofences, and at least one company is selling mod chips that disable no-fly zones altogether.
“When we heard ISIS is setting up its own homemade drone laboratories, our goal was not to get into an arms race back and forth with anyone who might conceivably want to misuse our drones,” Lisberg added.
Now that DJI has started to try to fight terrorism, it’s going to be very hard to go back to a more open platform. DJI’s intentions might be noble, but it’s very easy to imagine the company preventing its drones from, say, being flown near a public protest or over a factory farm at the request of a government or private company. The only thing stopping such overreach is DJI’s commitment to keeping its platform as open as possible.
“We’re the biggest drone manufacturer,” Lisberg said. “This costs us money, and it costs us money to have people full time to respond to this. But we believe the overwhelming majority of our customers want to fly safely and we think this is a fair compromise between safety, property rights, and the security of public airspace.”