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DJI’s Geo-Fencing and the Russian Company that Helps You Avoid It

BY Zacc Dukowitz
28 June 2017

DJI’s geo-fencing firmware GEO (Geospatial Environment Online) has been around for some time, and it generally works. If you try to take off in restricted airspace your UAV will stay on the ground, and if you try to fly into restricted airspace, your drone will freeze and hover right at the border.

Which is a good thing, in theory. We certainly don’t want drones flying near airplanes or in controlled airspace.

But in application there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out.

We heard recently from a UAV pilot in Florida who’s having trouble flying his Mavic within permitted airspace due to an apparent glitch in a recent update to GEO.

We’ll let him tell his story:

I live in Starke, Florida. About 10 miles from my house is Camp Blanding (an Air Force and National Guard Training facility). Of course, flying around the base is a “no-no”, which is to be expected.

However, I live roughly 10 miles away and I have never had a problem with flying my DJI Phantom 4 or Mavic Pro until this last DJI update for their geo-fencing firmware. My whole city is now in a NFZ!

The FAA’s B4UFly app below shows that I am “good-to-go” with flying in Starke.

geo-fencing

And here is the screen capture from my Mavic Pro of DJI’s new geo-fencing with the NFZ being in RED.

At the very top, below the “ATTI” graphic, is Jacksonville’s International Airport (JAX) and it’s correctly identified as an NFZ area. Almost directly south of JAX airport on the river is one of the military bases in Jacksonville. The HUGE Red NFZ in the bottom left side is my small town of Starke.

geo-fencing-dji

With DJI’s latest firmware update, I have now lost all of my ability to fly commercially for local car dealerships and other business that want my services.

Below, the red triangle with the purple circle is my house. I’m roughly 3/10ths of a mile from being out of this over-reaching NFZ.

dji-geo-fencing

Is there ANYTHING I can do to have DJI change this crazy NFZ since the FAA themselves say that’s it’s okay to fly in my city and at my house?

What Do You Do When the Technology Is Wrong?

We could write an entire article on the nuances of the airspace in question (for those who are interested, this specific situation was hashed out to an impressive level of detail in a recent thread in our community forum), but suffice to say that this pilot should be allowed to fly around Starke, but can’t due to flawed information in DJI’s GEO firmware update.

So where do you go from here?

For a commercial operator building a local business, this kind of error could be devastating. Your fledgling customer base could fade away into nothing while you wait for the technology to be corrected.

So, since waiting isn’t an option, you’re left with either choosing to buy a new drone from a different company that doesn’t have this problem (which could be cost prohibitive), and hoping they don’t implement similarly flawed geo-fencing, or turning to some kind of black hat solution. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, essentially.

Enter the Russian company named, ironically in our opinion, Coptersafe.

Coptersafe provides software created specifically for DJI drones that allows pilots to “jailbreak” their drones, and trick their GPS into thinking they are flying in approved airspace when they are in fact in an NFZ. It also allows allows drones to fly higher than the 500 meter height limit, and to fly faster than currently permitted by DJI.

dji mavic

One rather big limitation to Coptersafe’s software solution is that it only works until DJI releases another update (which are almost impossible to pass up, at this point).

We should be clear here. We aren’t suggesting that pilots should use Coptersafe’s services. In fact, we feel strongly that you shouldn’t. Software like this could allow less responsible pilots—or those with malicious intent—to fly in or near airports, which could put people at risk of real harm.

And more generally, using shortcuts like the one provided by Coptersafe bypasses the larger, harder task of finding a way forward that actually works for everyone, keeps people safe, and provides a stable foundation for the drone industry to grow.

If UAV pilots are seen as rogue agents who take the law into their own hands when it suits them, it will be that much harder to convince people that drones can actually be used for good. That is not something we need, especially at a time where there is so much uncertainty about the regulatory future of the industry.

But what can you do? Waiting for change, buying a new drone, or installing shady Russian software are all terrible options.

We suggest you flood DJI with calls, emails, and messages on social media letting them know that this is a really big deal. That’s a good starting place. Also, chime in on our forum thread with ideas or even just to find people going through similar experiences.

The frustration is real, but together we should be able to move forward.

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