November 17, 2015      

3D Robotics and DJI, the two most popular consumer drone manufacturers, have taken a major step to keeping drones out of restricted airspace. Both companies are adding new geofencing systems with the help of AirMap, which provides real-time access to no-fly zones.

Let’s start with DJI’s geofencing system called Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), which will be available on the current versions of the Phantom, Inspire and Matrice drones. GEO will provide DJI drone users with updated restricted flight zones due to regulation and/or safety concerns, including forest fires, major stadium events, VIP travel and other circumstances. GEO will also include restrictions around areas such as prisons and power plants and more.

GEO, by default, will not allow DJI drones to fly in restricted areas. However, DJI is allowing its users to “temporarily unlock or self-authorize” flights in some locations – not including Washington D.C. or other areas that pose national security threats – by verifying their DJI user account for free along with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number. DJI says it won’t collect or store that data, but it’ll help keep the drone operator accountable in the event of an incident.

DJI has had a less strict “No Fly Zone” geofencing system in place since 2013, but the GEO update will first launch in the United States and Europe in December 2015 via a firmware update to the drones and via an update on the DJI Go app. DJI says other regions will receive an update to airport data, but will continue to use the existing geofencing system.

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“We believe this major upgrade to our geofencing system will do even more to help operators understand their local flight environment, and to make smart, educated decisions about when and where to fly their drones,” says Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs, who made the announcement at the Drone World Expo. “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.”

3D Robotics also partnered with AirMap on Tuesday, adding the safety information software to its Solo smart drone app in anticipation of the holiday shopping season. The Solo app will contain basic information about federal guidelines (stay 5 miles from an airport, for example), national parks, airbases and more. 3D Robotics says future updates to the Solo app will add more detailed and nuanced airspace information directly from AirMap, including state and local regulations.

If Solo users open their Solo app in a restricted area, they’ll see a warning. Users can then tap the warning to bring up a map that displays any airspace information in the area. This airspace information includes real-time Temporary Flight Restrictions that may be established in the areas around wildfires, major sporting events and other sensitive places.

How AirMap Works

AirMap’s airspace data meets the same standards set for the information used by airline and general aviation pilots. AirMap’s data includes airports, controlled airspace, restricted airspace, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), and “advisory” information for places like hospitals, schools, prisons, power plants, and other locations that may be sensitive but are not necessarily related to flight safety.

AirMap’s services are delivered through an API that allows manufacturers to query airspace data by sending the position of a drone. In a fraction of a second, AirMap sends back the airspace information relevant to that area, together with simplified answers like “Yes, it’s safe to fly” or “You can fly, but you should know about a nearby heliport.” To support the many innovators working on drone applications, AirMap also offers a Software Development Kit (SDK). This SDK makes it easy for anyone building a drone-related app to bring airspace information to end-users.

“We’ve made drones really easy to fly,” says 3DR CEO and co-founder Chris Anderson. “With Solo, for instance, we built software into the drone that made it automatic to get the kind of cinematic video you want. This dramatically reduced the amount of practice that used to be necessary back when drones were difficult to fly. Now, we want to make flying as safe as it is easy. Supplementing the Solo app with AirMap’s robust and reliable real-time airspace information allows us to increase education with a seamless and enjoyable drone experience.”

Anderson has been adamant about the need to end the “mass jackassery” or reckless flying of drones. And he has said geofencing is part of the answer, adding that drones can be smarter thanks to the cloud and can self-regulate the airways.

Timing No Accident

These announcements come just days before the Nov. 20 deadline set by the Department of Transportation (DOT) for the 25-member drone registration task force to make its recommendations on how to implement mandatory drone registration. 3D Robotics and DJI, of course, were on the task force, which is recommending free registration for all drone that weigh more than 9 oz.

The task force also recommended users register by entering their name and address into a government-run website or mobile application. Users would have to attach a “legible” registration number to their drone.

The recommendations are a “compromise” as drone manufacturers and hobbyists wanted only heavier drones to require registration. However, users would have had to follow a more cumbersome registration process designed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to the report. So the two sides met in the middle – lower weight threshold with an easier registration process.