Drone Manufacturers Pursue Self-Regulation via Geofencing

Small-scale drone manufacturer DJI, a Chinese company that dominates the drone space, now offers a geofencing system built on flying restrictions it first introduced in 2013. The system already has built-in restrictions around airports and other locations such as prisons and power plants. The company plans to continually update airspace information, possibly including the ability to respond to an emergency request. The drone will not, however, be able to operate in areas deemed to be of national concern such as Washington DC.

The New York Times notes that, “users who open DJI accounts will be able to self-authorize flights in some locations.” Opening an account appears to be simple, requiring only verification from a credit or debit card or a mobile phone number. This self-regulation appears to be an effort to head-off stricter rules by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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“This is an example of the technology empowering operators to make decisions,” says DJI executive Brendan Schulman. “It’s an example of how technology solutions can address concerns.”

For that reason, DJI isn’t the only drone manufacturer to address regulation head-on. Google, Amazon, GoPro, Parrot and 3D Robotics (3DR) are participating in the FAA’s “registration task force,” for example. TechCrunch reports that 3DR’s consumer-grade Solo drone will have AirMap, a service to determine a safe flying zone, built into its app.

“We want to make it easy for people to fly [drones] safely,” said AirMap chief executive/co-founder Ben Marcus. “We collaborate with industry leaders like 3DR to give drone users the information they need to make decisions about where to fly.”

DJI’s proprietary system will go live in December. NYT notes that DJI leaves “how to treat information about new ‘no fly’ areas up to individual pilots,” either to avoid liability, or to limit its buyers from failures in the geofencing technology. Either way, DJI’s Schulman feels drones are being “unfairly singled out.”

“There is no other technology whose functionality is disabled by geography,” he said. Meanwhile, the FAA has yet to speak on the steps it plans to take to regulate drones.