DJI is letting people override its software that prevents its drones flying in restricted areas

Free flying.
Free flying.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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DJI, the largest consumer drone manufacturer in the world, announced July 5 that it was releasing a new version of the software that controls its drones, which will allow operators to fly in areas that the company’s software previously did not. DJI said in a release that this could aid those who want to use its drones for inspecting businesses or properties that fall inside the US Federal Aviation Administration’s restricted airspace zones.

The new software could also aid those that just want to fly their drones recreationally near their homes. For example, in New York City, there is a field in Corona Park, Queens, that the city’s parks department has specifically set aside for legally flying model aircraft and drones. But it falls within the FAA’s rule of not flying within five miles of an airport. When we tested DJI’s newest Phantom 4 drone in the field, the control software kept telling us that we were too close to an airport and had to land our drone when we flew more than about 100 ft in the air. Theoretically, DJI’s new software would allow us to override this restriction.

DJI’s flight-control app, called DJI Go, uses a technology called geofencing to keep track of where a drone is. Through the phone, the Go app is in constant contact with multiple satellites orbiting Earth, and the app has a database of restricted airspace coordinates. When a pilot flies their drone near one of these restricted areas, a warning will pop up on the DJI app, asking if the user has permission to fly in the area (where applicable), and if they understand that they are entirely responsible for anything that happens during their flight there. Pilots are also required to provide DJI with a credit card or a cellphone number so the company can find them if anything occurs, according to the BBC.

A representative for DJI told Quartz: ”DJI strongly believes our improved GEO system will make drone flights safer. By requiring pilots to affirm that they have authorization to fly in some areas, GEO helps prevent them from inadvertently straying into areas they don’t know are restricted.” The company said it’s made the changes because “we think it’s the right thing to do.”

DJI said that there will still be places in the US that its new software will not allow pilots to fly, such as over the entirety of Washington, DC, nuclear power plants, prisons, and any temporary restrictions the US government imposes. But it does leave the responsibility of flying safely in previously restricted areas solely in the hands of the people flying the drones. Americans have not always acted as responsibly, flying drones onto the White House lawn, into US Open tennis matches, and even obstructing aircraft trying to put out forest fires.

Brendan Schulman, a former drone litigator and current head counsel for DJI, told the BBC: “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.”

This post has been updated with a statement from DJI.