Fact #1: The world’s largest manufacturer of consumer drones, DJI, takes great measures to ensure its machines are safe. In fact, it uses special-purpose software to protect pilots from flying in (or into) illegal or sensitive areas.
Fact #2: A number of hackers are doing their best to effectively remove that armour, in a move we strongly believe is misguided.
DJI is known for making the most popular, and arguably the safest consumer and prosumer drones on the market. Not only does it build in multiple redundant features to help ensure its drones won’t get lost or drop out of the sky, but the company also puts great emphasis on software, including regular firmware updates.
Much of this software is written to ensure that recreational drone use remains safe, easy and fun. But it also has another, very explicit purpose just as (or even more) important: To ensure that users don’t inadvertently fly into areas where these unmanned aerial systems are prohibited by law.
This system, which DJI pioneered and has devoted great resources to (not only through coding and hardware, but also via cooperation with airspace and regulatory authorities around the world), is known as a “geofence.” The word refers to a set of software rules that create a virtual fence (or ceiling) beyond which a DJI product will not operate. This software is updated over time as legislation changes, new locations are designated as sensitive, and even for short periods during special events. It shows up on the DJI apps that are used to control its products, and explains to the user why their aircraft will not operate in restricted zones.
This software didn’t exist when the first DJI products were released. But it wasn’t long, as the popularity of drones exploded, before the company realized such features were crucial. YouTube videos appeared with drones flying in the clouds, well beyond the legal “Visual Line Of Sight” regulations. Drones (from multiple manufacturers) were used to drop contraband to prisoners. There was even that widely reported crash of a drone onto the White House Lawn. (The operator was impaired, several blocks away, and wasn’t even trying to reach the White House.)
Those headlines did not go unnoticed. In the boardrooms of DJI, the company quickly came to the conclusion that creating a geofence would be in the best interests of the public (especially recreational pilots who did not fully understand airspace rules), the company, and the industry as a whole.
When people obey the rules, the rules don’t tend to change. But when people knowingly violate sensible regulations (especially in a reckless or endangering fashion), the fallout can be disproportionate. The last thing a thriving industry wanted was a crackdown on regulations – especially when most people fly responsibly.
And so the Geofence, officially known as the Geospatial Environment Online (GEO), was born. It has kept novice flyers from getting into trouble countless times. It has ensured you can’t buy a product and take off next to a busy airport. Plus, it has the ability to grant permission to those with special permits or authority to still fly within those exclusionary zones.
Above all, it has worked.
Now, however, a threat has emerged.
Hackers hack. They get a charge out of modifying and altering software. Often, modifying that software also changes the capabilities of hardware.
In some cases, hackers have done incredible, amazing things and realized improvements in devices never envisioned by their creators. We can’t help but applaud some of this work. (It’s that kind of ingenuity, by the way, that prompts DJI to offer open SDKs, or software development kits, allowing creative programmers to build new and inventive apps.)
For some, however, part of the hacker ethos is that because they own the product they believe they have the right to alter it in any way they choose. Crack an older Apple TV and you can stream new movies at no charge. Jailbreak your iPhone and you can “free” it from the perceived constraints of the App store.
And so it was, perhaps, only inevitable that this would reach into the code of GEO.
In brief, it started recently with a Russian company that started selling a $200 hack called Coptersafe. It was the equivalent of geofence wirecutters, allowing pilots to fly their device wherever they wanted.
Now, reports Motherboard, that Russian software has been reverse-engineered, and is flowing freely on the internet. People are sharing it, downloading it, and using it to actively circumvent software that has been deliberately created and refined for the purpose of safety.
DJI is responding, of course, with its considerable engineering prowess to remain a step ahead as this plays out. But it’s unfortunate it even has to take that step.
In some ways, we can actually understand the appeal to some hackers. It’s a technical challenge, and it allows even greater control over what is already a marvelous piece of engineering. One drone user (who also released the hacking code) emailed Motherboard that “End users are more invigorated than ever with the desire to emancipate their drone.”
But the more drones that are ’emancipated,’ in our view, the shorter-lived will be both their ‘freedom’ and the invigoration.
Regulatory authorities don’t take lightly to airspace violations. Now do other legislators, and there has been no shortage of disproportionate but nonetheless predictable restrictions in the wake of irresponsible drone use.
Geofences serve a specific and vital purpose, while still allowing drone users full enjoyment of their product. They are absolutely necessary if this industry is to thrive.
Those who circumvent them do so at their peril.
Because, as we all know, many people aren’t so forgiving when you climb over their fence.