Drone DRM: DJI Modifies Drone Firmware To Block Flying In D.C. No Fly Zone

February 1st, 2015

You may have read this week that some drunk guy lost control of his drone near the White House, and it crash-landed on the lawn. In response, DJI Phantom, the manufacture of the drone, released new firmware that prevents the drone from flying within the Washington, D.C. no fly zone.

DJI wants to make sure this type of incident never happens again: the company is issuing a mandatory firmware update that will disable its camera drones in Washington DC’s no fly zone.

The new firmware will prevent Phantom 2 drones from flying anywhere inside a 15.5-mile radius of downtown Washington DC, so owners living in the area will now need to travel outside that perimeter if they want their drone to be operational. DJI’s Inspire 1 and Spreadwings series have not yet been restricted in the same way.

This update is actually part of an already planned expansion of DJI’s No Fly Zone system that restricts flying around airports, across national borders, and other restricted areas (as determined by local authorities).

The D.C. fly-zone is a 15 mile radius that stretches into Maryland and Virginia, far, far away from the Seat of Government.

While this voluntary suggestion may seem innocuous, and perhaps even helpful to prevent terrorism, consider this from another angle. What happens if the government mandates that drone providers add built-in no-fly zones?

Seem far-fetched? The Chinese company has already prohibited flying in areas of Beijing–I suspect this compliance was not optional.

DJI uses satellite data to effectively create no-fly zones for its drones, mostly around airports but also Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. DJI devices won’t take off if satellite signals tell them they are in such an area. They also won’t fly into one, and, if they find themselves there after temporarily losing a satellite signal, will automatically land.

Think further. What if the government mandates that all self-driving cars have a police-override. The cops can stop your car, or if they have a warrant, drive you into the police station. There was a scene in the movie Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character had to jump out of his moving vehicle which was in auto-pilot mode.

I’ve written about this form of DRM in a related context–3D Printers. Imagine if the government mandates that manufacturers of 3D Printers install filters to block printing of certain files–innocuous ones like copyrighted objects, or constitutionally-protected items like handguns. This level of censorship can become pervasive, very quickly. All under the guise of safety.