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DJI Nudges Its Way into the UTM Scene with AeroScope

BY Zacc Dukowitz
13 October 2017

This has been a busy week for DJI, even by their prolific standards.

The day after launching the new ZenMuse X7 camera, DJI announced the release of AeroScope, a solution for identifying and monitoring airborne drones to address safety, security, and privacy concerns.

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This sounds a lot like the technology being created to enable Unmanned Traffic Management systems (UTMs) that NASA has been working on in partnership with companies like Gryphon Sensors and AirMap.

But rather than compete with those efforts, it seems—at least on its surface—that DJI is mainly trying to address safety concerns about its own drones with AeroScope.

Back in April DJI announced a bounty of $145,000 for information related to rogue drone flights at the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in China, indicating they have a strong vested interest in preventing rogue pilots from flying in controlled airspace. And of course they do. As more and more drones fill the sky, concerns around tracking and identifying them has only grown, and at least some of the accountability for providing reliable methods has fallen on the shoulders of drone manufacturers themselves.

Which is all to say that the release of AeroScope shouldn’t be a surprise. Back in March, DJI released a white paper describing the benefits of using electronic identification for drones, and they’ve consistently been on the side of safety and compliance in the drone industry.

How Does AeroScope Work?

AeroScope uses the existing communications link between a drone and its remote controller to broadcast identification information such as a registration or serial number, as well as basic telemetry, including location, altitude, speed and direction.

The AeroScope receiver can immediately sense a drone as it powers on, then plot its location on a map while displaying a registration number. That number functions as the equivalent of a drone license plate, and authorities can use it to determine the registered owner of a drone that raises concerns.

Police, security agencies, aviation authorities, and other authorized parties can use an AeroScope receiver to monitor, analyze, and act on that information. AeroScope has been installed at two international airports since April, and DJI is continuing to test and evaluate its performance in other operational environments.

As drones have become an everyday tool for professional and personal use, authorities want to be sure they can identify who is flying near sensitive locations or in ways that raise serious concerns.

– Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President for Policy and Legal Affairs

AeroScope works with all current models of DJI drones, which analysts estimate comprise over two-thirds of the global civilian drone market.

Since AeroScope transmits on a DJI drone’s existing communications link, it does not require new on-board equipment or modifications, or require extra steps or costs to be incurred by drone operators. Other drone manufacturers can easily configure their existing and future drones to transmit identification information in the same way (but of course this means giving up at least a little ground to a competitor).

Keeping Consumers AND Governments Happy

One important aspect of AeroScope that DJI has called attention to in its press materials is that they aim “to strike a reasonable balance between authorities’ need to identify drones that raise concerns and drone pilots’ right to fly without pervasive surveillance.”

DJI has anticipated privacy concerns around AeroScope, creating the system so that it relies on drones directly broadcasting their information to local receivers instead of transmitting data to an internet-based service. Most likely this setup is a response, at least in part, to the backlash after a leaked memo revealed that the U.S. Army had banned DJI drones due to concerns around data security breaches that could happen through open internet connections.

Some pilots might feel like DJI leans a little too far in the direction of appeasing governments, especially those who have frustrations around flying in certain locations due to poorly or incorrectly implemented geo-fencing.

The rapid adoption of drones has created new concerns about safety, security and privacy, but those must be balanced against the incredible benefits that drones have already brought to society.

– Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President for Policy and Legal Affairs

In their defense, much of the technology and related policies needed to normalize drone operations simply didn’t exist a few years ago, and has had to be imagined, and then created, often somewhat on the fly as we learn from real-life scenarios. As one of the biggest consumer drone manufacturers in the world, DJI is a de facto emissary to government agencies when it comes to putting measures in place to anticipate and address safety and privacy concerns, and it’s not hard to understand why they might want to be proactive about appeasing potentially wary governments.

Compliance and Use

Drone identification settings will be included in DJI’s initial drone software to allow customers to choose the content of their own drone’s identification broadcast to match local expectations, both before and after identification regulations are implemented in different jurisdictions.

To protect customers’ privacy, the AeroScope system will not automatically transmit any personally identifiable information until regulations or policies in the pilot’s jurisdiction require it.

It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see legislation mandating the use of AeroScope in the U.S., which means that it probably won’t get widely adopted here, unless it’s folded under some larger UTM-related effort (and even then, legislation seems unlikely).

Again, the balance here is between privacy and safety. If DJI makes AeroScope transmissions a mandatory aspect of using its drones going forward, there is sure to be an outcry from those concerned with privacy, who have a good argument to make. On the other hand, if AeroScope is optional then only those already acting in good faith will turn it on, leaving rogue drones to continue flying unidentified and unencumbered.

It will be interesting to see where adoption of AeroScope grows fastest, and how it integrates—if at all—with existing UTM technology and research being done in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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