Update: White House Drone Debacle Raises IoT Governance Questions

The Chinese maker of the Phantom "drone" said it will use a mandatory firmware update to enforce a no-fly zone over Washington D.C. But not all DJI customers are happy.
The Chinese maker of the Phantom “drone” said it will use a mandatory firmware update to enforce a no-fly zone over Washington D.C. But not all DJI customers are happy.

In-brief: Unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by the Chinese firm DJI will be blocked from flying over the U.S. Capitol according to a statement by the company. The move raises important questions about the role that connected device makers will play in determining how, when and where customers use their products. (Update adds commentary from Justin Davis of Dronecamps.com – PFR Jan 29, 2015 17:30)

DJI, the Chinese maker of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “drone” that crashed on the lawn of the White House, may be winning the approval of U.S. officials with its decision to block their use within the U.S. Capitol, but not all of its customers are happy.


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On Wednesday, DJI announced that it would release a “mandatory” firmware update for its Phantom drones that would use GPS coordinates to enforce a 15.5 mile no fly zone around the U.S. Capitol, in keeping with FAA rules, a DJI spokesman told the British newspaper The Guardian. The move raises important questions about the role that connected device makers will play in determining how, when and where customers use their products.

The decision follows a high-profile incident in which a DJI Phantom drone crash landed on the White House lawn on January 26. That incident was quickly traced back to a Federal employee who had some drinks and then took a friend’s drone for a late night spin from an apartment near the White House.

Phantom drones are equipped with GPS, which owners can use to navigate the devices in the air. The company can use software controls built into the drone firmware to disable the devices when it detects the drone has entered a no-fly zone, such as the controlled airspace around airports, a spokesman told The Guardian.

However, that announcement doesn’t sit well with owners of DJI drones, which sell for hundreds of dollars. Some took to support forums on the company’s website to voice frustration over the company’s decision and to weigh whether there were ways to slip out of the software shackles imposed by DJI.

[Read more Security Ledger coverage of security issues with firmware.]

Support forums on DJI.com featured discussion of the planned firmware update, Version 3.10, including ways to circumvent it.

“How do they plan to stop a NON GPS flight?” wondered a user with the handle “SavannahQuad.” A user with the handle “Mad in NC” worried that expanded no-fly zones embedded in firmware could encompass his home. “According to the current ‘No Fly Zone’ which in my city is a 5 mile radius I’m good today as I am less than 1/2 mile or .8Km away from the “border” today. If DJI expands beyond governmental defined and agreed areas of their own accord …myself and I assume thousands of DJI customers that no longer will have access to a device that was operational up to the new software push.”

It is unclear whether or not DJI can force Phantom owners to apply the firmware update. But Justin Davis of Dronecamps.com in Rodanthe, North Carolina, a DJI reseller,  said in an interview that Phantom quadcopter customers need to connect their device to a laptop or tablet to monitor the charge on the copter’s battery. In the process, they will have the update pushed to the device.

In a video statement published on YouTube, Davis backed the company’s decision.

“Its been common knowledge in the RC (radio controlled device) industry for a long time that you don’t fly your RC stuff in Washington D.C.,” he said. The message of the White House incident was simple: “If you’re gonna drink, don’t fly,” Davis said.

The decision by DJI accomplishes by fiat what the U.S. Government has been slow to do through policy: creating no-go zones for small, unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on updated rules for civilian use of UAVs, but has yet to release them. In the meantime, civilian and commercial adoption of the small but powerful “drones” has exploded, leading to conflicts with authorities and public safety officials. News organizations and public interest groups have chaffed at FAA guidelines that ban commercial use of drones, saying that the small flying devices, equipped with cameras, are a valuable news gathering tool.  Drone video like this has also been used by activists to expose problems like the waste produced by industrial farming.

Davis of Dronecamps.com said that he does not know of other drone makers who have used firmware to implement no-fly zones as DJI does. But he said that he expects other vendors will soon follow suit, as more consumers begin experimenting with the radio-controlled copters. “I think you’ll see the top companies in the world that produce these copters be proactive. And I think its a good thing for them to be proactive,” Davis said.

Consumers might look on the quad copters as “toys,” Davis said that they are powerful flying and surveillance tools. As a result it is reasonable to expect their use to be limited in and around government buildings, national landmarks, prisons and other high security facilities.

Firmware is more often mentioned as a source of insecurity or other failings with connected devices. But it is also an avenue by which companies can gain powerful (and possibly lucrative) insights into customer behavior. The move by DJI could presage similar moves by connected device makers, which may see customers’ need for access to centralized management platforms and software updates to impose restrictions that could run counter to local laws and liberties.

8 Comments

  1. As a new Quad Copter, incorrectly labeled as a drone, drones are military in nature and use. I began researching these machines before buying mine from Justin. As a 62 year old combat veteran, something like this would have been great in Vietnam but today, more and more negative publicity is being aimed at Quad Copters of any make or manufacture. The number one thing everyone is scared about from individuals, to companies, to the government is the Right To Privacy. Common sense would dictate that you would not fly a Quad Copter close to an airport simply because their might be a possibility of hitting or crashing into a plane. But with the recent Quad Copter landing on the White House lawn, actually crashing, the Right To Privacy will be in serious jeopardy for everyone. The current government is far from being open and honest and if anything are doing everything it can to take away individual rights and impose sanctions of every kind upon it’s citizenry. All this government needs right now is some lame excuse and from that will draw up all kinds of laws, rules and regulations, not based on common law, but will do so based on supposition. So this new video and picture industry which is being fueled by these new Quad Copters may see a very serious set back because of drunk who should have never been at the controls to start with. This very young industry will truly benefit everyone in a great many ways and already is, both directly and indirectly. Someday, maybe every police department can own a Quad Copter to assist them in a variety of ways. Agriculture is already benefitting. The Arts and Photography has seen an explosion is some very beautiful and rewarding pictures and video’s that would otherwise not be possible. Homeowners can entirely document their entire property and grounds for insurance purposes. Search and Rescue teams could have eyes in the sky in a relatively short period of time and not have to wait on a manned helicopter or plane to show up. There are far more positive ways that Quad Copters (Drones) can be used than negative. Yes, I will admit that there will be those idiots who will buy a Quad Copter and want to use it to spy on his neighbors and such, but this is the exception. Those idiots should be arrested and jailed and like I have heard before, “If one of them there things flies over my property, I’m a gunna shoot it down!”

    If it was not due to the current climate of government monitoring of it’s own citizens, terrorist’s threatening our great Nation and a President who is a yellow dictatorial coward, this crashing of a Quad Copter into the White House lawn would be seen for what it was, a stupid drunk doing something stupid, but instead, it will be used by the yellow cowards cronies in Congress to pass even more restrictive laws, rules and regulations governing the everyday life of the United States citizenry.

  2. i am an owner of a phantom 2 vision +, I am also a licensed pilot, what if I decide not to upgrade my firmware?
    In a video I saw where the owner could not fly his new Inspire without updating the firmware, is this going to be the new norm for vision2 + also, does DJI have access to every Quadcopter it produces?

    • Hey Russ – DJI will make it very difficult for you not to upgrade. From what I understand (not owning a DJI copter myself), you need to sync it to your PC/device to monitor battery charge. Whenever you sync it, DJI will push the firmware update to your device. I suppose you can avoid this for a while – by keeping your system offline, etc. But unless you have good reason to not want this update, it probably makes better sense to just keep your device up to date with the latest firmware, even if that means accepting that DJI gets to decide where you can/can’t fly it.

      Paul

    • Agreed, K.M. these technologies empower both citizens and governments -so you need an involved citizenry that is forceful in articulating its values and expectations about issues like surveillance, personal privacy, search and seizure. Absent that, we get to some kind of Orwellian future pretty fast.

  3. Nice article!!

  4. We have just bought a DJI yesterday. We live in New Zealand, half a world away. Hope this doesn’t effect our quad.

  5. Ellen,
    I hope your DJI is fully supported in New Zealand. I took delivery on mine on Jan 8th and sent it back on Jan 25th due to it going totally haywire, 360 degree flips, rolls, etc. Had done everything by the book on my training flights, but this loss of control was not pilot error, but total equipment failure inside the Quad itself. This problem, which is a factory defect, can then have serious impact upon pilots flying anywhere and for whatever reason. My case in point definitely shows the need for serious flight safety standards. Thankfully, I was training in an open hay field, but it would have been quite another story if the Quad had been flying over people or vehicles, it would have crashed into them because the Quad, literally, fell out of the sky, after it went haywire. This points to pilot training being the most effective way to prevent this from happening. However, regardless of training, no pilot can do anything when faced with equipment failure beyond his/her control.

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