Chinese manufacturer DJI just announced a new technology to identify and track airborne drones. Dubbed AeroScope, this system takes advantages of all the telemetry data sent by the aircraft to give the authorities a detailed vision of the drone presence in a local airspace. This system is mature and has been installed at two international airports since April. Here are the technical details and legal challenges associated with this technology.
How Does It Work?
The principle is very simple. As I explained in a previous article, drone detection and identification is a complicated and expensive business. However, as any drone pilot knows, DJI aircraft constantly broadcast a lot of data via the radio telemetry link: GPS position, speed, altitude, direction, and battery status to name a few. If you can see all this information on your screen from the ground, why not tap in this existing communication link to gather all the information of the drones flying in the area? No need for complex radar or optical sensors here. Just listen and capture the data stream from the drones flying in the vicinity of AeroScope. Indeed, DJI explained:
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. This approach also avoids substantial costs and complexities. AeroScope receiver can immediately sense a drone as it powers on, then plot its location on a map while displaying a registration number.
- Which drones are concerned? DJI said that “all current models of DJI drones” work with AeroScope. It is not clear at this point whether or not the system can pick up drones from other brands. However, due to the great variety of technologies and parts available on the market, it is unlikely that AeroScope can identify and track all the aircraft. DJI drones emit on the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands, but many other bands are used in the drone industry such as 433 MHz, 800/900 MHz, and 1.2/1.3 GHz. On top of that, DJI does not have access to the communication protocol used by other drones. It cannot read and decode the telemetry stream without knowing the language (or having the license). However, DJI said that “other drone manufacturers can easily configure their existing and future drones to transmit identification information in the same way.” This leaves the door open for other brands who would like be part of DJI’s system.
- What is the detection range of AeroScope? Being a passive system, the range only depends on the reception capabilities of the system. Given the quality of the digital radio link used on DJI drones, the range should be at least similar to the maximum control range. Some people on YouTube can fly as far as 10 miles. If AeroScope is equipped with a signal amplifier and a high gain diversity antenna, this number can easily be doubled to reach 20 miles of range.
- Who can use this system? Due to security and privacy concerns, Aeroscope will only be available to authorized personnel. DJI mentioned that “police, security agencies, aviation authorities, and other authorized parties can use an AeroScope receiver.”
What About the Privacy of the Drone Operator?
In an earlier white paper released in March 2017, DJI noted:
The privacy interests of the drone operator are often not considered, or even raised, in policy discussions about remote identification. These interests are significant and must be taken into account. Across our hundreds of thousands of customers, we have heard from companies and individuals who have serious and legitimate concerns about the confidentiality of their drone operations.
This concern is justified: in a previous article, we saw how the law enforcement authorities convinced the FAA to put a no-fly zone over Standing Rock. Open data gathering could also be used for corporate espionage.
Actually, only the drone registration or serial number is transmitted to AeroScope. In this regard, DJI is inspired by the license plate model. Anyone can see your license plate number but only the appropriate authority can match it to your name via a secured database. The manufacturer explained that “authorized receivers (e.g., FAA, police) of the transmission who believe the drone’s operator is violating a regulation or engaged in unlawful acts can record and investigate, similar to how a license plate might be recorded by someone who is cut off on a road.”
At the moment, the serial number attached to a DJI drone is not matched by a mandatory database but DJI could potential use your account information to track you. In an extreme situation the data gathered by DJI could be requested by a legal authority to identify you (e.g., the credit card used to buy the drone, the name attached to your account, and the IP address and GPS location).
However, Part 107 operators know that the FAA asks for the serial number of each drone during the registration process. Thus, this database partially exists.
There is no legal obligation for now but the latest press release from DJI said: “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.” In the future, new regulations may require matching the drone serial number with a name. If the authorities ask, DJI will have to comply with the law.
The Reasons Behind This System
Officially, AeroScope inception is motivated by security concerns. Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President for Policy and Legal Affairs, said that “authorities want to be sure they can identify who is flying near sensitive locations or in ways that raise serious concerns.” He continued, “DJI AeroScope addresses that need for accountability with technology that is simple, reliable, and affordable — and is available for deployment now.”
But up to this date and despite many close calls (most of them being wrong), there hasn't been any serious incidents related to drones. However, it is only a matter of time until someone crashes his drone on an airline jet. The entire industry is feeling the media pressure. With their military background, drones are the perfect target to boost the audience of unscrupulous news outlets always prompt to generate a drama out of a non-event. Any vague drone story is enough to justify a catastrophic headline or breaking news. In this environment of paranoia, the legislator also feels the pressure and wants to be reactive.
As a commercial company, DJI must sell drones but strict regulation would go against its business model. Tight regulations have a negative impact on drone sales. In this context of legal uncertainty, DJI wisely decided to stay ahead by being proactive in order to calm legislators and avoid seeing its product making negative headlines. Schulman said that the system “can help solve policy challenges, head off restrictive regulations, and provide accountability without being expensive or intrusive for drone pilots.”
DJI knows that it cannot prevent stricter regulations, but by working closely with the authorities the company can orientate some of the legal outcomes in its favor. The first step of this strategy occurred early 2015 after an inebriated federal agent crashed his Phantom 2 in the White House perimeter. DJI quickly responded with the no-fly zone firmware update that prevented its drones to fly near sensitive areas and airports. But the no-fly zone is not enough to prevent all irresponsible flights. With regulators on its back, the AeroScope system allows to show DJI’s good faith and provide a tool for the airport managers to monitor the drone presence in their airspace.
The fact that this system was unveiled in Brussels, Belgium, the capital of the European Union administrative and legal system, shows that DJI is targeting legislators. Europe is one of the main markets of DJI and the European Aviation Safety Agency is currently working on a drone regulation which is expected to be finalized in 2019. In the U.S. too, the Congress directed the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop approaches to remotely identify the operators and owners of unmanned aircraft, and set deadlines for doing so over the next two years.
AeroScope is more than a technology, it’s a public relations move designed to appease the authorities in order to protect DJI business. But since the aviation administrations over the world are asking for an identification system, DJI is anticipating the trend and positioning itself in this new market. That is what the company does when it says “DJI has led the industry with safety and security advances such as geofencing and sense-and-avoid technology, and believes the rapid pace of innovation provides the best means to address new policy concerns.”
As we saw earlier, AeroScope will be open to other drone manufacturers. There are no details yet about the requirements to join the system but any manufacturer that would like to be part of the AeroScope will probably have to comply with DJI’s standards. This point is very important because DJI is by far the dominant company in the civilian drone market and could impose its own standards on the industry with all the potential technological barriers and license fees associated with it. But this is too early to tell for now.
The AeroScope system is a simple, clever, cost-effective, and efficient solution to track and identity drones in restricted areas. No need for complex detection technologies since every drone transmits all the data needed to find it. However, the system is only compatible with DJI drones. Even though DJI machines represent the vast majority of the drone fleet, the aircraft designed by other brands will not show up on the AeroScope screen. DJI leaves the door open for other manufacturers to join its system. Is it a fair move from DJI or a strategic step to impose its standard and license fees to an industry already dominated by the Chinese company? Time will tell, but DJI is not responsible for the actual hysteria and bad press associated with drones.
DJI decided to be proactive and work with the regulators to find acceptable solutions for its business. In this regard, drone pilots and DJI are in the same boat. As for the privacy issue, DJI is trying to find an acceptable solution for everyone by conciliating the contradiction between user’s wishes to remain discrete and the pressured policymakers always prompt to limits liberties. European and U.S. lawmakers are currently working on new drone regulations, hopefully for the best. But DJI reminds us: “No other technology is subject to mandatory industry-wide tracking and recording of its use, and we strongly urge against making UAS the first such technology. The case for such an Orwellian model has not been made.”