As part of the company’s continued efforts to improve safety standards and encourage responsible flying, DJI has demonstrated its Aeroscope technology at an event in Washington D.C.
A closer look at Aeroscope: Could it Strike the Right Balance?
Today’s event in D.C was all about DJI assuring the FAA that it is possible for drones to be a “safe, secure and beneficial addition to America’s airspace.”
Aeroscope has been dubbed an “electronic license plate for drones”. It gives authorities a reliable way to identify and monitor airborne drones. Crucially, it can be put in place in sensitive areas such as airports, so doesn’t necessarily have to monitor pilots flying elsewhere.
The system works by using the existing communications radio transmission between a drone and its remote controller. Drones in sensitive areas can transmit their location, altitude, speed, direction, takeoff location, operator location, and an identifier such as a registration or serial number, to any AeroScope receiver within radio range. Authorities will be empowered to track rogue drones and enforce regulations more easily.
At the event, a panel of experts representing the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board, airport operators and safety researchers discussed collaborative strategies for managing new concerns created by widespread drone use, while allowing society to reap the full benefits of the technology.
“There are more than twice as many drones as traditional aircraft in America today, and we believe technology and education are the best tools to maintain and improve their admirable safety record as the number of drones continues to grow,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI VP of policy and legal affairs.
“DJI’s new solutions put that belief into action, providing authorities with a way to identify drones in sensitive locations, and providing drone pilots a way to show they understand how to fly safely.”
— DJI (@DJIGlobal) October 25, 2017
On Aeroscope specifically, Schulman pointed out that the system is all about balance. “AeroScope is designed to meet authorities’ legitimate needs concerning safety, security and privacy while also respecting the rights of people and businesses who use drones.”
“DJI’s solution provides the information authorities need, while ensuring that flight data is only collected on the small number of drone flights that could raise concerns. The overwhelming majority of drone flights are safe, responsible, and uneventful, and we believe there is no reason for them to be centrally tracked and recorded nationwide. We also want to make sure that remote identification solutions are not burdensome or costly for our customers.”
Education alongside enforcement
As well as the Aeroscope demonstration, DJI introduced a new Knowledge Quiz, which will test pilots before they are allowed to embark on their first flights.
The questions will appear in DJI GO 4, DJI’s main flight app, which runs on smartphones and tablets connected to drone remote controllers.
“The evidence shows the overwhelming majority of drone pilots fly safely and responsibly, thanks in part to a robust education effort led by aviation authorities as well as drone manufacturers and industry groups,” said Jon Resnick, DJI Policy Lead.
“DJI sees the Knowledge Quiz as an extension of this effort, helping ensure drone pilots know basic safety rules. We are grateful to have collaborated with the FAA in designing the quiz to ensure pilots fly safely.”
In its U.S. implementation, all DJI pilots will be presented with a list of nine questions, and must correctly answer all of them in order to be able to fly. Pilots can continue answering new questions until they successfully pass the Knowledge Quiz. The Knowledge Quiz will initially be available in the U.S. in an update to the DJI GO 4 app at the end of October. It will be expanded to other countries in the near future, using questions customized for each country’s rules and guidelines.
Aeroscope seems like a sensible way to promote accountability among pilots while giving authorities a useful tool to combat rogue drones. It also appears to strike the right balance between customer privacy and giving authorities the information they need to apprehend rule breakers. However, there are a few thing questions that remain unanswered.
First of all, to what extent will the system actively prevent nefarious pilots? There is certainly a high chance it will make ordinary DJI pilots think twice before flying where they shouldn’t, but we have seen in recent months how simple it appears to be for hackers to bypass DJI’s geofencing software. Will Aeroscope be just as vulnerable to evasion?
In addition to that, how secure is the system in general? Could it be possible to fool it into believing there are hundreds of drones descending upon an airport when in reality there are none, like some sort of real-life DDoS attack?
Finally, although DJI has a huge majority of the hardware market, Aeroscope obviously won’t be compatible with drones from Yuneec, Parrot and other industry manufacturers. How willing will they be to get on board?
— DJI (@DJIGlobal) October 25, 2017
Reassuringly for pilots concerned about their own privacy, DJI has stated that the Aeroscope system cannot intercept photos or videos from drones that it monitors. Neither can it actively take control of a drone or transmit personally identifiable information.
The FAA convened a task group to work out the best way forward for remotely tracking and identifying drones back in the summer. The tracking ARC includes representation from 74 separate bodies, companies and organizations, including DJI, Verizon, the Airline Pilots Association, Airmap, AT&T, BNSF Railway, Ford, the NYC Police Department and Amazon (you can find the full list here).
Reports have suggested that the group has been unable to reach an agreement on one single option. So in effect, the Aeroscope play can be seen as DJI putting their money where their mouth is.
We’ll have to see it in action before we make any conclusions about its efficacy, but both the signals and the intent are positive.