A drone operator who has a DJI account — verified with a credit card or phone number — would be able to unlock the drone in a restricted area. This would allow a firefighter or otherwise authorized person to fly a drone near a wildfire.
“It’s an important balancing of safety concerns and also the need to allow this technology to be used in beneficial ways without unnecessary restrictions,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs.
DJI plans to release the updated version of its app with the new maps in December. The current versions of the Phantom, Inspire and Matrice drones will receive the update, and North America and Europe will be covered. DJI says these efforts began before a government push to register drones.
If an unauthorized user were to unlock their drone and fly in a restricted space, DJI would be able to help authorities track down the user.
By striking this balance, an airline that wants to use drones to inspect their planes at an airport would be able to do so. A significant upgrade in DJI’s maps is the inclusion of temporary flight restrictions, which can cover wildfires, sporting events, or VIP travel, such as the pope’s recent visit.
The approach brings nuance to the tricky area of regulating drones, given the interest to minimize risks while not losing out on the technology’s positive uses. One exception to this balance will be Washington, D.C., where users will not be able to unlock their drone and fly indoors. (The nation’s capital has unparalleled restrictions on drones that date to 9/11.)
DJI already had geofences which restricted its drones from flying near airports. It’s enriching its maps with the support of AirMap, an 11-month old start-up that’s quickly established itself as the leader in digital airspace data for drones.
Tuesday 3D Robotics announced it would also be implementing AirMap into its Solo app before the holidays.
“We’ve made drones really easy to fly and easy to use,” said 3D Robotics spokesman Roger Sollenberger. “By doing that we also took out a huge educational element. We’ve bypassed that amount of time you need to spend flying and to learn the rules. Hopefully this way we can put the education back into the practice.”
AirMap uses software to help build its maps but almost always relies on a human to make the final call on decisions, such as the precise location of a hospital helipad. It passes on temporary flight restrictions, such as regarding wildfires, after receiving them from the FAA.
“It’s not like we’re looking for someone to tell us what hours Starbucks are open. If you got that a little bit wrong, it wouldn’t be that big a deal,” said AirMap chief executive Ben Marcus. “If you get the location of a hospital helipad wrong and somebody flies very close to a hospital helipad not knowing it’s there — and there’s a helicopter coming into the helipad — that’s a big deal for us.”
AirMap is a believer that drones are emerging as an incredible technological platform. It’s betting that every drone app will need accurate, real-time airspace information, and it wants to provide that data.
The start-up, based outside Los Angeles, thinks it can actually accelerate the speed at which flight restrictions are sent to drone users, which would be a good thing for fire departments responding to blazes.
AirMap is proposing to the Department of the Interior that AirMap offer a service for authenticated users, such as U.S. forest service leaders, to log into a system and immediately report a fire. AirMap would then instantly push this information to nearby drone pilots, providing relevant information in minutes.