Following the pre-Christmas drone debacle in the UK — which plunged thousands of people into travel misery after repeated drone sightings closed the runway at Gatwick, and later also briefly suspended departures at Heathrow — consumer drone maker DJI has announced it’s upgrading its geofencing system across Europe.

It says its Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) 2.0 system will be rolled out to the 19 European countries that did not already have the GEO system in phases — “starting later this month”.

“GEO 2.0 creates detailed three-dimensional “bow tie” safety zones surrounding runway flight paths and uses complex polygon shapes around other sensitive facilities, rather than just simple circles used in earlier geofencing versions,” it writes.

We’ve asked how long it will take for the update to be fully rolled out across the region.

A further 13 local markets that had the GEO system already will also now get the 2.0 update.

In all, 32 European countries will be covered by GEO 2.0 — which DJI bills as offering “enhance protection of European airports and facilities”.

Here’s how it explains the new geofencing approach in Europe:

GEO 2.0 applies the strictest geofencing restrictions to a 1.2 kilometer (3/4 mile) wide rectangle around each runway and the three-dimensional flight paths at either end, where airplanes ascend and descend. More flexible geofencing restrictions apply to an oval area within 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) of each runway. This bow tie shape opens more areas on the sides of runways to beneficial drone uses, as well as low-altitude areas more than 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the end of a runway, while increasing protection in the locations where traditional aircraft actually fly.

DJI’s new boundary areas around airport runways are based on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Annex 14 standard for airspace safety near runways. DJI also consulted with aviation organizations on ways to enhance geofencing features near airport facilities. DJI’s categorisation of airports is based on airport types, numbers of passengers, operations and other factors, influencing the sensitivity of the airspace around a given location.

The countries getting GEO for the first time are: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden.

While those countries set for an upgrade to GEO 2.0 are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.

Update: A spokesman confirmed it will be live in all 32 countries later this month. He also confirmed that DJI drones operating in the nineteen European countries that are getting GEO for the first time had no geoblocks at all prior to this roll out.

It’s not clear what took DJI so long to implement stricter and more detailed geofencing — and, well, any geofencing at all in most regional markets — around critical infrastructure sites like airports. We asked and it didn’t respond to the question.

But it has also announced a change of data provider — from California-based AirMap to Altitude Angel — in Europe. So appears to have needed to source better European mapping data. (Although the latter company launched its unmanned traffic management platform back in 2016.)

Altitude Angel, a UK-based startup which was founded in 2014, says its GuardianUTM platform is being used by DJI to extend the functionality of GEO 2.0 so it “more accurately reflects the highest safety risks around particular facilities”.

DJI claims the upgrade not only better reflects actual safety risks around airports but describes it as “more flexible in lower-risk areas” — saying, for example, that it would permit “authorized users to conduct drone activities in locations parallel to runways”. (Albeit UK airports might not be in a huge rush to permit any kind of nearby drone flights given the recent chaos… )

Another difference for the platform flagged by Altitude Angel itself is the claim it better maps other “sensitive facilities” too, such as prisons and nuclear power stations — which it says are represented by “more accurate ‘polygon’ shapes, rather than large, static cylinders”.

“By more accurately mapping the highest risk zones, DJI can improve safety while opening up more of the airspace to drone pilots,” is its claim.

Another change coming via the GEO update is that DJI’s geofencing system will also include Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) imposed during major events or natural disasters.

“The TFRs will be based on authoritative data from Eurocontrol,” it says.

When the drone maker announced the launch of its GEO geofencing system in Europe and North America, back in 2015, its VP of policy and legal affairs wrote: “Our years of actual user experience have shown that in most instances, strict geofencing is the wrong approach for this technology, and instead we are helping operators make informed, accountable decisions.”

As it turned out there’s rather more work to be done to ensure human nature combined with affordable, powerful drone tech doesn’t turn a consumer gadget into a weapon of mass disruption.

Another wrinkle, vis-a-vis geofencing as a mechanism for regulating drone use, is that individual (DJI) drone owners must update their DJIGO 4 flight control app and aircraft firmware for the new geoblocks to apply. So a push button fix for drone misuse this most definitely is not.

Add to that, modded/hacked drones can and do circumvent baked in geoblocks. And of course other drone brands, with different geofencing systems, are available.

Regulators have been caught on the hop around drone safety but aren’t likely to stand still for too much longer.

Last month the UK government announced new powers for police to tackle illegal use of drone technology — including powers to land, seize and search drones.

It also said it would beef up stop-gap flight restriction rules on drones by expanding a 1km flight exclusion zone around airports to circa 5km.

A full drone bill is still pending but the Gatwick drone chaos will have concentrated ministerial minds on the expeditious need to better regulate the tech.

Gadgets – TechCrunch