The future of no-fly-zone geofencing (from Wired)

Smarter geofencing features are coming to drones like the 3D Robotics Solo and DJI Phantom series. In both cases, the GPS-driven safety features are driven by a company called AirMap. 

From Wired:

PARKER GYOKERES KNOWS what he’s doing with a drone. A retired US Air Force photojournalist, Gyokeres now runs his own aerial photography business, and has flown photo and video missions for clients as varied as Wu-Tang Clan, the Department of Defense, and Nike.

But once in a while, Gyokeres’s DJI Inspire drone won’t take off. There’s nothing wrong with the UAV, and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s the work of built-in geofencing software, invisible guardrails that stop pilots straying into restricted areas—mostly no-fly zones like airports, but also entire cities like Washington, DC, public areas like Tiananmen Square, and, apparently, decommissioned blimp bases.

“I went to a job in Massachusetts, and I went to arm the vehicle, and it wouldn’t arm because it was on the perimeter of an abandoned Navy airfield.” Gyokeres says. Naval Air Station South Weymouth in Abington, Massachusetts—a former Navy airfield that served as the home of blimp squadron ZP...—hasn’t been in operation since 1997. Still, the “No Fly Zone” feature in DJI’s A2 Flight Controller system had it tagged as off-limits. And because the system’s no-fly zones are hooked up to a geofencing system, Gyokeres’ mission was auto-grounded. That canceled flight is a good example of how drone geofencing systems work, and where they can cause problems.

In these early days of the drone craze, automated geofencing systems have been put in place by manufacturers including 3D Robotics, DJI, and Yuneec to curb reckless flying. In the most basic sense, geofencing can prevent a drone from taking off or entering restricted airspace based on its GPS coordinates. Geofencing is appealing because recent history shows drone pilots can’t be trusted to stay out of trouble. Drones have interfered with firefighting operations, been spotted by airline pilots around airports, and even crash-landed on the White House lawn. (That last one led to a blanket ban on flying drones in the nation’s capital.)

And with drones quickly filling our skies—the FAA predicted a million would be sold last holiday season alone, and the civilian UAV market could be worth nearly $4 billion in less than a decade—finding a way to make sure they all behave responsibly is increasingly important.

While it’s understandable that drone manufacturers and regulators want to err on the side of caution in terms of safety, these early geofencing systems are prone to errors and confusion. “These things aren’t necessarily bad, because the market isn’t mature at this point,” says Gartner research director Brian Blau. “The devices are only in their infancy, and we’re confident that over the years, some of these issues are going to get worked out—specifically around no-fly zones.”

That resolution may come very soon. In the next year or two, geofencing systems in many high-end drones will get more accurate, more dynamic, and more communicative. They’ll also start to work with lower-end drones—machines that don’t even have GPS. Down the line, geofencing systems could also help power safe autonomous flight, paving the way for those delivery drones Amazon and Google really want to deploy.

The Problems With Current Geofencing Systems

Most early systems, such as the DJI “No Fly Zone” feature that launched in 2013, were developed by the manufacturers themselves. And while it was relatively easy for these companies to hard-code no-fly zones into drone software based on areas that are always restricted (like airports and the White House), it’s harder to keep drones consistently updated with new and changing restrictions. The FAA is constantly setting up temporary no-go zones: airspace over live sporting events, wildfires, presidential motorcades, things like that. Not only did primitive geofencing systems spit out false positives like that old blimp base, they wouldn’t know anything about newly closed areas.

Another hiccup: Right now, geofencing systems are only found in higher-end “prosumer” drones, ones that require substantial skill (and money) to operate. Their pilots tend to be professionals, often with FAA permission to uses drones for commercial purposes like aerial photography, videography, and cinematography. These are the folks who tend to be most aware of airspace restrictions and the nuances of flying responsibly. Meanwhile, geofencing systems don’t come with cheaper, toy-like drones, whose controls are more likely to be in the hands of kids or inexperienced operators. In other words, these geofencing systems can limit the very pilots who are more likely to fly responsibly.

It’s worth noting, though, that these systems aren’t intended to be the end-all, be-all of drone safety. Geofencing is supposed to help, not to be relied upon. “It’s a last resort,” says Gyokeres. “If the drone is shutting itself off, I have bigger problems. That means I’m not paying attention to where I am and what’s going on around me.”

The FAA agrees. It acknowledges the value of building flight restrictions into drone software, but wants drone pilots to take responsibility for their actions. And while no-fly-zone data is based on its official restrictions, the FAA doesn’t endorse any particular geofencing system (it suggests using its apps and resources instead, to be sure you’re getting the most accurate info). “An aircraft operator, whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned, is responsible for knowing the rules and flying safely and responsibly at all times,” a spokesperson says.

Automating a Better Geofencing System

Despite the FAA’s tepid interest, a Santa Monica-based company called AirMap wants to help advance the entire idea of drone mapping. It’s playing a major role in the next-generation geofencing systems used by DJI and 3D Robotics. DJI’s AirMap-powered DJI GEO system is currently available as a public beta, while 3D Robotics has a closed beta of its Solo app with AirMap’s service built in.

AirMap, which launched less than a year ago, wants to do more than just provide drone maps. Its ultimate goal is to become an automated mission control for a world of drones.

AirMap’s key strength is the breadth and timeliness of the information it delivers. Along with permanent flight restrictions and international airspace information, it can keep a drone equipped with temporary flight restrictions and no-fly zones that are less well documented. “We get our temporary flight restriction information directly from the FAA, except for the information that the FAA does not publish,” says Greg McNeal, an AirMap co-founder. “We’ve created our own proprietary algorithms to publish [those] ‘unpublished temporary flight restrictions.’”

These “unpublished TFRs” usually apply to sporting events in stadiums that seat 30,000 people or more; the FAA doesn’t list all those off-limits sporting event in its official notices. The ways a UAV reacts to encountering a no-fly zone—automatically landing, or just warning the pilot—is up to the individual manufacturer.


Unlike first-gen geofencing systems, AirMap's dataset includes information about temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), such as the airspace above Super Bowl 50.Unlike first-gen geofencing systems, AirMap’s dataset includes information about temporary flight restrictions, such as the airspace above Super Bowl 50.  AIRMAP

A second advantage for AirMap: Its information meets the standards that apply to data systems used by airline pilots. “It’s called a DO-200A certification standard,” McNeal says. “When you’re dealing with flight safety, you can’t rely on crowdsourced or open-source information.”

That doesn’t mean no one can send a geofenced drone into a no-fly zone. DJI’s GEO system keeps things like the airspace above prisons permanently locked, but lets users with verified accounts request permission to bypass some flight limits. “In a wildfire area, we want to help keep drones from interfering, but we also want to enable firefighters to use drones to do their job more safely and effectively,” says Brendan Schulman, DJI’s head of policy and legal affairs. “The verified account provides a measure of accountability in the event that something happens that later warrants an investigation by authorities.”

The Future of Geofencing Systems

In terms of drone safety and pilot awareness, smarter geofencing systems are just the first step toward a more secure airspace. The FAA, pilots, and drone manufacturers all tend to agree that if more and more drones are taking to the sky, there needs to be a communication system that makes sure they’re buzzing around in a reasonable and responsible manner.

Accurate and up-to-date airspace information is just part of that puzzle, according to Gyokeres. He envisions a near-term future with a seamless flow of data between drones, airline pilots, and local and federal agencies. “My vision for the future, I think this could work,” Gyokeres says. “Before I leave I’m going to file my flight plan on my phone to the FAA. I’m going to give them my pilot number, where I’m going to fly, how I’m going to fly. Then I’m going to get out there, turn on the drone, and the drone is going to talk to the airspace system. It’ll say ‘this is an autonomous UAV at this height, at this distance, in this location.” Ultimately, it’s about communication. “I think a lot of the problem is that the FAA doesn’t know what the hell we’re up to.”

Views: 2714

Comment by Darius Jack on January 31, 2016 at 4:50pm

==
The FAA agrees. It acknowledges the value of building flight restrictions into drone software, but wants drone pilots to take responsibility for their actions. And while no-fly-zone data is based on its official restrictions, the FAA doesn’t endorse any particular geofencing system (it suggests using its apps and resources instead, to be sure you’re getting the most accurate info). “An aircraft operator, whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned, is responsible for knowing the rules and flying safely and responsibly at all times,” a spokesperson says.
==

There is no need to let middleman to develop no-fly-zones.
Personal model drone is a very small aircraaft and you don't fly hours today, so service provided by FAA is the only official source of NFZs and TFRs.

Unpublished TFRs can be turned into published TFRs by order of Secretary Foxx in a matter of days, weeks, not months or years.

Since you fly your drone at known geolocation, your ground control station or misssion planner or Pixhawk itself connects to database
of NFZs, TFRs published by FAA and TFRs published another federal agency for the given region and updated database of NFZs, TFRs published by FAA and TFRs published by another agency, is verified, certified and you go with flying.

Nothing complicated, not requiring a middleman having no legal status
of federal agency to publish official NFZs or official TFRs.

Of, Secretary Foxx can contract private sector to provide such service but service must be reliable and 24/365 operational, taking all and every legal risks ( server down, access denied, data missing, data incomplete) to pay compensation claims in case of crash, personal injuries and M$1 insurance to cover all risks.

Standard for updating the official database of NFZs, TFRs is standard provided by antivirus software, tested for years to work.


Moderator
Comment by MarioSpeedwagon on January 31, 2016 at 5:32pm

Looking at Airmap.IO, it looks like the NOTAM I filed for tomorrow & tuesday is already displayed on the map. So does this mean that airmap would restrict me from flying in my own NOTAM boundaries? I've spent a grand total of about 12 minutes in airmap, so I don't know which restrictions would issue a warning, and which ones would prevent a launch. 

We're also working on a letter of agreement with an airport to be able to fly within 5NM. I'm all-for geofencing and dummy proofing some activities, but I also don't want to see a rollout of more widespread geofencing before having a system in place to authorize certain operators to override that behavior. 

Log my over ride and make that info available to the FAA, but give me the ability to bypass it without changing parameters. 


Moderator
Comment by MarioSpeedwagon on January 31, 2016 at 5:34pm

I apparently missed the one paragraph where that was addressed directly. My bad, disregard. 

Comment by Darius Jack on January 31, 2016 at 7:05pm
@MarioSpeedwagon,

Thank you, really smart comments.

"
So does this mean that airmap would restrict me from flying in my own NOTAM boundaries?
"

You should personalize your own NOTAM with FAA (database of FAA)with your aircraft registration number to let drone / control-station run Geofencing application to download NFZ updates and TFR updates and let your hard encoded aircraft registration number (small UAS) be checked and verified against NOTAM application status with FAA.

This is exactly against a policy to let third party middleman to play the role of FAA.

I am afraid, FAA requires more time to implement software based technology solution in support of Live NOTAM applications from pilots of small UAS.

Developer
Comment by John Arne Birkeland on February 1, 2016 at 7:34am

It's kinda fun to watch the RC planes have fun on the local airstrip in the weekends, while the DJI's are grounded..

Comment by BacklashRC on February 1, 2016 at 10:32am

Geofencing opens manufacturers up to liability.  It takes responsibility away from the pilot in charge, which violates the FAA's long standing position on the pilot in charge being solely responsible for the flight.  It is also a First Amendment issue and civil rights advocates should vociferously fight mandatory no fly zones built into firmware.


Moderator
Comment by MarioSpeedwagon on February 1, 2016 at 10:37am

Geofencing is to protect others (and the industry as a whole) from the reckless or ignorant actions of the operators. The individuals responsible for these careless actions are typically not pilots, and are not aware of the FAA's "long standing position" of anything. The geofencing should be treated as training wheels, with a set of requirements to take them off. 

The civil rights comment is ridiculous. 

Comment by BacklashRC on February 1, 2016 at 10:53am

For several years DJI has geofenced Tiananmen Square.  This effectively prevents photo journalists from covering protests that would embarrass the government.  Controlling where journalists can and cannot take photographs is a bedrock civil rights issue.

I am quite aware that geofencing is designed to protect others.  If we were that concerned about protecting the public, cars would have speed governors on them limiting the top speed to the fasted speed limit (a technology that has bee available for decades).  Far more deaths can be attributed to automobile accidents than will ever be attributed to future UAV related air calamities.

I am all for geofencing as a notification system (3DR), but hard coded no fly zones sets an ominous precedent for the UAV industry.  Of course it will not stop there.  One day Ford may dictate which roads you can and cannot drive your car on.

Comment by Tony Heaton on February 1, 2016 at 1:47pm

"The civil rights comment is ridiculous." 

That type of thinking is why the US finds itself in the position it is in.  People don't seem to care about rights until theirs are trampled.  We should all defend the rights of everyone.  Let's say the police don't want you to see their tyranny in an area so they put up a perimeter.  No problem you say, I'll launch my plane or copter.  Oops, they've also added a NFZ to stop you.   How long before the entire US is an NFZ. Yes, this is a civil rights issue.  I know, I know, it can't happen here......sure it can't.


Moderator
Comment by MarioSpeedwagon on February 1, 2016 at 1:54pm

"Let's say the police don't want you to see their tyranny in an area... "

Let's base the implementation (or lack thereof) of industry standards on your conspiracy theories. 

I fear the stupidity of the masses much more than I fear the tyranny of my local PD. Anyways, I'm tapping out of this blog post. I hear enough fear mongering on facebook. 

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