Programming No-Fly Zones into Drones

DJI is programming no-fly zones into its drone software.

Here’s how it’ll work. The update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone’s computer that tells it not to fly around the Washington D.C. area. When users are within a 15-mile restricted zone, the drone’s motors won’t spin up, preventing it from taking off.

If this sounds like digital rights management, it basically is. And it will fail in all the ways that DRM fails. Cory Doctorow has explained it all very well.

Posted on February 12, 2015 at 12:22 PM36 Comments


Anura February 12, 2015 2:03 PM

Honestly, unlike DRM, I think it makes a lot of sense to program no-fly-zones or other flight regulations into the drones. The purpose, as I see it, is not to protect against malicious users, the purpose is to protect ignorant users from violating laws that they were unaware of, which they could be prosecuted for.

Allen February 12, 2015 2:08 PM

Should we extend that to car as well? Technically prohibit travel above speed limits?

Even if that analogy doesn’t disturb you, it’s still a pointless idea. What’s the point of limiting a drone to 1 foot outside my property? What happens when I move? What if I move into a place that’s been designated drone-free by the previous occupant? Who maintains the database? Who validates requests? How are removal requests validated?

Don’t get me wrong, I think drones are going to be a disruptive technology, but this won’t solve anything.

Anura February 12, 2015 2:20 PM


Cars are operated by people who have passed tests to show they are familiar with the regulations; drones require no such licensing, and anyone can fly them. No one is forcing anyone to keep drones on their own property, it’s just forcing drones to comply with flight regulations (well, only one for now, I suspect more in the future).

GauntletWizard February 12, 2015 2:26 PM

Fortress Washington DC is getting crazier and crazier. Not that long ago (When I was a child) you could walk right up to the white house. Sure, there were armed guards should you cross the fence, but they were trained and uniformed members of the military. Now, you can’t walk onto the national mall without passing some nasty rent-a-cops on a power trip, and there’s four layers of circling concrete around the White House.

That the security state is encouraging quadrocopter vendors to build bizarre restrictions is no surprise. They’re afraid of losing control, and power in the people’s hands is anathema.

bob February 12, 2015 2:40 PM

I had been seriously thinking about DJI Phantom.

Heres my problem. Airport airspace only goes down to the ground within 4 nm of the airport (in the US). Outside of that it becomes an “upside-down wedding cake” where the restricted airspace STARTS at (for example) 2500′ MSL and goes up to 5,000′ MSL.

My house is under one of these overhanging airspace areas. If you look at a 2-dimensional map, it will look like I am violating airport airspace (Class C specifically) but in reality even the 400′ AGL restriction they are adding to the drones is well below the BOTTOM of the restricted airspace.

I am willing to bet they screw this up and the drone wont go into my front yard because 5 miles away is airspace it cant enter. And I further bet once they have my $2,000 they wont give a crap about my problem.

bob February 12, 2015 2:45 PM

@Allen: Within 20 years today’s “OnStar” systems will have morphed to something mandatory and a government entity similar to the FAA (although possibly at state level) will have yes/no veto authority on where and when you are allowed to operate your vehicle. You will have to file a “drive plan” and if they dont give approval your car simply wont start.

Scott February 12, 2015 3:52 PM

What if I want to fly a drone inside a warehouse, school gymnasium, etc., within the no-fly zone?

Bill February 12, 2015 4:01 PM


“I am willing to bet they screw this up and the drone wont go into my front yard because 5 miles away is airspace it cant enter. And I further bet once they have my $2,000 they wont give a crap about my problem.”

If only there were a way to ask them about this… or for that matter, a way to not spend those two thousand bucks. If only.

Shmintelli Gent February 12, 2015 4:11 PM

There is a much easier way to manage this — without having this programmed into every drone ever manufactured on the planet. Commercial drones only operate on specific frequencies. Either jam those frequencies around the WH, or have a more powerful remote constantly emitting a Turn Left (or Right) signal… just like kids take over each other’s RC cars in the park 🙂
That should take care of the vast majority of drones.

Peter A. February 12, 2015 4:22 PM

@Shmintelli Gent

Most modern drones use ISM band that is used for WiFi, Bluetooth etc. – if not the WiFi stack directly. Jamming is not an option.

Bill Stewart February 12, 2015 5:56 PM

Flight area restrictions in drones are only like DRM if they’re not something users can access or edit.

My DVR lets me tell it I don’t want to see the Golf Channel, but that’s not DRM; I’d be just fine if my toy drone or commercial drone had a default setting to not fly into the airspace of the local general-aviation airport and not get sucked into the jet engines of the commercial airports.

With a small toy drone, I’d usually like to be able to keep it from crossing the nearby freeway, so I don’t lose it under a truck tire when the battery runs out, but with a bigger drone I’d like to be able to set that, because sometimes I’d want to fly it over the Bay to take pictures.

OTOH, if I can’t see the Don’t Fly Here List on the drone because that would reveal Secret Military Bases or the place the President’s having a fund-raising dinner tomorrow, yeah, that’d be DRM-like and bad.

Bee Safe February 12, 2015 7:13 PM

@Everything’s a Honeypot

It would take omniscience or omnipotence to achieve universal honeypotness.

But I’m thinking some comment above hit very close to an area that triggered a FUD response.

Dirk Praet February 12, 2015 7:43 PM

So how long until someone reverse-engineers the firmware or comes up with a hack to make the drone believe it’s somewhere else ? Wasn’t the latter how the Iranians succeeded in bringing down an RQ-170 UAV in 2011 ?

Missed point February 12, 2015 8:02 PM

Bruce, you missed the point. This keeps honest people honest, and eliminates the ‘by accident’ defense for doing something stupid.

That’s a good thing.

Coyne Tibbets February 12, 2015 8:52 PM

Just had a minor epiphany and thought I’d throw it out there for effect.

People throw around things like “15 miles” casually. But the District of Columbia is a portion of a square, 10 miles on a side so, from conrner to corner, 14.1 miles. By my estimate, there is no portion of D.C. greater than 8 miles from the White House.

So in essence, the company banned the flying of its copters within the entire area of Washington D. C., and a quite a large area of the surroundings.

wiredog February 13, 2015 5:51 AM

“Should we extend that to car as well? Technically prohibit travel above speed limits?”
It’s called a governor, and some cars already have them. Usually on the engine speed rather than ground speed. I know that some military vehicles have speed governors. They’re easily circumvented, but they’re there. Generally they prevent the “I didn’t realize this was stupid and would violate the warranty” defense, as you have to deliberately overcome them. As others have pointed out, most drones don’t require any licensing. I suspect self-driving cars which can be operated without specialized training will have speed limits built into them.

Tad Simmons February 13, 2015 7:01 AM

The guys over at Flite Test just did a podcast on this. Two points I found especially telling were that there are many AMA approved fields near airports (in fact, some of the largest model aircraft events take place on actual airfields that are closed for the event) and noting how they are focusing on the tech in this case and not the people who were reckless.

One big problem I am seeing quite a bit of the “but it doesn’t affect me” syndrome in the hobby (in the podcast Eric even mentions he doesn’t mind the height restriction); many people are focusing on the specific aspects of the various decisions that only affect them. FPV guys concentrate on the LOS requirement since they often want to fly using goggles, but don’t care about the height requirement because they are usually pretty low. Glider pilots are the exact opposite; they can easily get over 1000 feet using a simple high-start (think long rubber band or bungie cord) but don’t care about video since weight is their enemy anyway. Hopefully the AMA will be able to get through the

Bob S. February 13, 2015 7:07 AM

Yes, drone rules are moving towards the digital rights of the government and corporations at the expense of fundamental human rights. Again.

I think the focus should be on re-creating our basic rights to safety, privacy and restraining the government and corporations from search and seizure of our papers and possessions.

Soon enough the issue will come down to life and death: Death from above by government drone strike is coming, likely sooner than we think. The headline may be….”Gov. Drone Strike Kills Kid by Mistake…oops!”

Justin Miller February 13, 2015 7:58 AM

While I think this is a tough topic, and one that deserves a lot of debate and thought, I don’t think you can equate speed limits/vehicle governors to drone restrictions. When you drive a car recklessly, you are potentially taking other peoples lives into your hands, however, you are also risking your own safety. When you fly a drone recklessly above crowds, too high, or near airports you have no skin in the game. No physical harm comes to you if the drone crashes. For this reason I believe that restrictions around airports should be in place or require some sort of request from air traffic control. Outside of that I’m not of the opinion that it should be built into the drone.

paul February 13, 2015 9:11 AM

This gets even more convoluted because there’s a huge body of open-source software and hardware out there for building drones, and it’s perfectly plausible (ignoring EULAs for the moment) for people to create forks of the open-source stuff to run on proprietary drones, the same way that people have created firmware to run on proprietary mobile phones.

Rules, not tools.

Jon Marcus February 13, 2015 9:31 AM

@Bob (and Bill, though I suspect he was being sarcastic):

Here’s a link to the restrictions that DJI has implemented.

That’s a product claim they’re making. If it turns out to be inaccurate, you should be able to get your money back. I have no reason to believe that DJI would either screw that up or refuse to refund your money if they did. But if they did both, you can still go to your cc company or visit your local Pro Se court.

Clive Robinson February 13, 2015 9:33 AM

The simple fact is we have seen enough people bypass “tacho’s” on commercial vehicles one way or another to know that if there is a reasonable way to “rip out and replace” then people will, especialy if there is a financial benifit in so doing.

The only way to prevent this “rip out and replace” is to make the drone in such a way that it is not realy possible to pull things out. That is the motors and control servos have crypto comms chips buried deep inside them similar to the PAL technology in nuclear bomb “physics packages”.

But that has very significant cost and reliability issues that would “kill the market” for all but a few specialists.

And there are enough “model makers” in other parts of the world who would quite happily design drones using standard parts and put the plans up on the internet….

So in all honesty the idea is not going to be a “reliable” solution no matter how hard some people “cross their fingers and wish”…

Rob February 13, 2015 10:43 AM

Bruce, I think you’re drawing an inappropriate analogy. This shouldn’t be compared to DRM, because the two systems have completely different purposes. The purpose of DRM is to control how you the consumer use material you’ve lawfully acquired; the purpose of these flight restrictions is to make it possible for the Secret Service to declare any drone flying within a certain radius of the White House to be a security risk.

As it currently stands, if someone has a drone hovering in the air three feet beyond the White House security fence the Secret Service has to play a guessing game about hostile intent. This could be someone collecting surveillance data in anticipation of an attack; this could also be some paparazzi trying to get exclusive footage of someone attending the White House. That uncertainty makes life difficult for the Secret Service.

With this new scheme in place, the Secret Service can simply assume malicious intent on the part of drone operators. That’s good for them: it immensely simplifies their calculus. If it’s flying, shoot it down. (Maybe we’ll see guards armed with shotguns loaded with rock salt, as an environmentally friendly and low-risk way of downing drones.)

The point of DRM is to prevent the person subjected to it from doing things they might normally be allowed to do; the point of these flight restrictions is to simplify a government response playbook. As such, while I agree with you that DRM is a fool’s errand, this drone lockout idea might actually achieve its desired end.

Of course, whether that desired end is wise is a much different matter.

albert February 13, 2015 11:06 AM

DJI is just doing some pre-emptive window dressing. Kudos to them for seeing the handwriting slowly appearing on the wall. All hobby drones will eventually be regulated; it’s got to happen. They are excellent for the reconnaissance of such things as nuclear and conventional power plants, water treatment facilities, police stations, fire stations, large industrial plants, electric substations, food processing factories, government offices, military installations…did I leave anything out? They can carry IR video, EMR detectors, air sniffers, and a bunch of other instrumentation we haven’t even though of. They are dangerous to all forms of transport, especially aircraft. I wonder if any small-jet engine manufacturers have done any drone-ingestion tests yet. It’ll be a b—h to ‘no-fly’ everything, won’t it?
Hobby drones, like guns*, have very limited usefulness. Yes, they do video; I’ve seen beautiful work by naturalists and scientists. So you want aerial views of your property, fine. You want video of your neighbors bedroom, not so good. LE and the TLAs will do whatever they want anyway, but I foresee licensing for everyone else. The license plate will be a hard-coded number included in all command/response pairs, to allow for tracking; the exception being mil/LE units (of course). It’ll stay with the unit, and guess who’s responsible if you sell it on? The gummint is going to love dealing with drone abuse.
Would this be hack-proof? No, not likely. But probably too hard for the average pervert or brain-dead idiot to accomplish.

*I’m not advocating gun control, so shut up.

Random832 February 13, 2015 4:02 PM

“And it will fail in all the ways that DRM fails.”

I’m guessing this is more intended to keep honest people honest. (shouldn’t it also apply to class B/C/D airspace, though?)

gordo February 13, 2015 5:55 PM

@ Tad Simmons

Listening to the podcast you referenced, my take away [and I’m not an RC hobbyist, and correct me if I’m wrong] was a sense of some discouragement that I think I heard from most, if not all of the participants (but maybe the ‘copter crash on the White House lawn/no-fly-zone firmware-update prerogative was also an opportunity to air complaints in general).

For example: Holding off on buying new gear; too many new rules coming out of the FAA to keep up with; fines starting to be levied/precedent/heavy-hand on the horizon; a loss of control in practicing the hobby, i.e., by definition, something done for fun; and a brief mention of workarounds (maybe not so much fun for everyone).

I also got a sense that the industry’s success, as it were, is also its downfall, i.e., as falling price-points mainstream the opportunity, more and more people who don’t care to read instructions, etc., are getting in, which leads to lowest-common-denominator a$$ covering by the manufacturers; idiot-proofing, preemptive self-regulation, e.g.

I suppose that, as with other applications of general purpose computing technology, if not general purpose computing technology itself, it may be a game of attrition, and the good ol’ days. Thankfully, the next-generation of true hobbyists and craftspersons, in addition to motivations held across the generations, will also, and as always, have its own set of interests to pursue, problems to solve, and birds to build.

Jason February 14, 2015 11:15 AM

The funny thing is that, if this were freely available and licensable software and dataset, designed to provide a warning or by-passable stop function to users about to fly though restricted airspace, it would probably be copied widely and wind up in all drones. It would be a feature.

Instead, it’s DRM, and every time it mistakenly tells someone they can’t fly in their own backyard, it will get jailbroken and/or removed. The end result will be that it will be ineffective and simply make it a pain in the ass to stay legal.

CallMeLateForSupper February 14, 2015 11:38 AM

“When users are within a 15-mile restricted zone, the drone’s motors won’t spin up, preventing it from taking off.”

Hmmmmm…… That would not prevent a take-off OUTside a 15-mile restricted zone and then a hand-off to a pilot within that restricted zone. Oh well…

fajensen February 14, 2015 2:52 PM

The LEO’s in the security circus will, have and do shoot anyone they consider a “threat” immediately, the officers even get paid time off while they are cleared of any wrongdoing. Therefore will only regret wasting the 0.002 kCal of effort it takes to empty a Glock into a drone because that might not trigger the time-off for the inquiry as it does with a person.

Now, automated defences on the other hand … Provoking those could be LuLz!

Shawn McMahon February 20, 2015 7:14 AM

LEOs “emptying Glocks into drones” will never really be a thing because drones are in the air, and bullets come down with lethal force.

Same for any automated defense that involves lethal force.

David May 11, 2015 8:52 PM

Eh, you can always fly drones without using GPS … and then you can fly anywhere. So will they make drones without GPS illegal?

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