The Stack Archive

Amateur drone operators on wrong side of geo-fence

Fri 5 Aug 2016

Drone geo-location

An amateur operator in Silicon Valley reported that he lost control of his drone which then crashed into the water near Redwood City, CA shortly after he was told by a security guard to stop flying over the new Apple campus, currently under construction.

Duncan Sinfield, the drone operator, has a YouTube channel with over 6000 subscribers on which he posts videos recorded from drone flyovers of the Bay area. He has been recording and posting flyover videos for over a year, many chronicling the development of the new Apple ‘spaceship’ campus in Redwood City.

On this occasion, however, he said, “I watched it go down at full speed, even as I was using my thumb to raise elevation. It was as if there were some invisible hand controlling it.”

DJI, the manufacturer of the drone Sinfield used and one of the leading manufacturers of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) worldwide, was unable to verify what happened to Sinfield’s drone even after reviewing flight data stored on DJI servers. One of the services provided to operators of DJI drones is GEO, the Geospatial Environment Online. GEO notifies drone pilots when they are approaching restricted airspace, “where flight may be limited by regulation or safety concerns.”

Access to restricted airspace is a major concern for the government, as well as technology companies who have a vested interest in protecting top-secret and personal information from the public. Public safety is a concern as well. The US government recently announced that it would use geo-fencing to prevent drones from the airspace around wildfires; and manufacturer DJI rolled out an update to their GEO program in support of this initiative. By incorporating alerts from AirMap, the DJI GEO program now updates restricted airspace information to include the perimeters of wildfires in real time.

However, redirection of an amateur drone from a restricted area is a far cry from seizing control of a user’s UAV and crashing it into the San Francisco Bay. A remote user taking control of a drone is possible; due to the absence of encryption technology between the craft and the telemetry box, a hacker can potentially control another person’s drone from a laptop or from another UAV, even expensive quadcopters used by police.

Brendan Schulman, Vice President for policy and legal affairs at DJI said, “There’s a question of what technology is being used to create a virtual wall. If it’s a jamming technology, I’d worry about violating FCC rules.”

He added, “And taking over control of a drone sounds like hijacking to me. The idea that a third party will take over control of someone else’s aircraft is potentially a serious violation and safety concern.”


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