The manufacturer of the drone that crashed on the White House lawn earlier this week says it is working to prevent future such incidents by erecting a no-fly zone in the devices' flight software. The update will essentially prevent the popular Phantom quadcopter from flying within the D.C. airspace.
DJI, which makes the drone that buzzed the presidential grounds, said Wednesday that it's rolling out an update in the next few days that will force its drones to obey a federal no-fly notice to pilots in the Washington, D.C., area. When users are within the 15-mile restricted zone, the drone's motors will not be allowed to spin up, effectively grounding the vehicle.
The plan to obey the Washington no-fly zone had been in the works, but recent events pushed up DJI's timetable, said company spokesman Michael Perry.
"We're building a larger database of over 10,000 airports around the world, along with some sensitive sites around the world that needed coverage," said Perry. "But after this incident we decided to release this firmware a little earlier than planned."
The update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone's computer telling it where it can and can't go. Here's how that system works generally: When a drone comes within five miles of an airport, Perry explained, an altitude restriction gets applied to the drone so that it doesn't interfere with manned aircraft. Within 1.5 miles, the drone will be automatically grounded and won't be able to fly at all, requiring the user to either pull away from the no-fly zone or personally retrieve the device from where it landed.
The concept of triggering certain actions when reaching a specific geographic area is called "geofencing," and it's a common technology in smartphones. Since 2011, iPhone owners have been able to create reminders that alert them when they arrive at specific locations, such as the office.
DJI's no-fly database already includes 3,500 airports, according to Perry. But now the company is adding a Federal Aviation Administration rule, known as NOTAM 0/8326, that sets up restrictions on all aircraft flying within 30 nautical miles of Reagan National Airport — or more specifically, these coordinates:
Given that D.C. falls completely within this area, complying with the rule means that DJI's drones will be prevented from flying within the District proper.
This no-fly zone will eventually be added to DJI's bigger map of no-fly zones (red dots indicate major airports; blue dots, minor ones):
But even with the software update, the White House drone incident raises more questions than answers. How many other drone manufacturers have failed to include the Washington no-fly zone? Will the FAA's long-awaited drone regulations explicitly require drone makers to obey NOTAM 0/8326 and other no-fly rules?
There are rumblings that the FAA will unveil its proposal this week (but of course, that's what everyone was saying before). We'll keep you posted.