DJI is updating its geofencing system across Europe after Gatwick drone debacle

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 […]

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.

UK airport restarts some flights after drone shutdown chaos

The UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, reopened its runway early this morning after a day of shutdown triggered after drones were repeatedly spotting flying nearby. Drones ground flights at UK’s second largest airport In a media statement issued at 08:00 GMT this morning, the airport said it reopened the runway at 06:00 and that a […]

The UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, reopened its runway early this morning after a day of shutdown triggered after drones were repeatedly spotting flying nearby.

In a media statement issued at 08:00 GMT this morning, the airport said it reopened the runway at 06:00 and that a “limited number” of aircraft are now taking off and landing.

Though it also warned the rate is “very restricted”, with just a few runway movements per hour.

Police units have been searching for the unknown drone operator/s since yesterday, so far without success. Last night military support was drafted in to help with the ongoing hunt.

Passengers are still being advised by Gatwick to check the status of their flight with their airline before travelling to the airport.

Gatwick said it has been working with partners in government agencies and the military overnight to “put measures in place which have provided the confidence we needed to re-open the runway and ensure the safety of passengers, which remains our priority”.

“We continue to provide welfare and information to all disrupted passengers who are at the airport and have had teams in throughout the night. Our priority today is to get our operation back on track so that people can be where they need to be for Christmas, and we will update as more information becomes available throughout the day,” it added.

The Guardian reports comments made this morning by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, speaking on BBC Breakfast. He said there had been around 40 sightings of what are thought to be “small number of drones” while the airport was closed.

“This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world, the disruption of an airport in this way,” Grayling told the broadcaster. “We’re going to have to learn very quickly from what’s happened.

“I plan to convene discussion with other airports around the UK very quickly indeed so that they know what’s happened, they understand what lessons need to be learned, and we’ve put in place every measure we possibly can to ensure this can’t happen again.”

Aviation minister, Baroness Sugg, faced a barrage of critical questions over the incident in the House of Lords yesterday.

Robotics experts have also slammed the government for complacency over the technology, saying it has failed for years to listen to concerns about how drones could be misused.

The UK amended existing laws this year to bring in drone flight restrictions, barring flights within 1km of airports and above 400ft.

A charge of flouting the rules and flying drones recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine or both.

But critics have said the regulations are too lax and that more needs to be done to ensure drones cannot be used to cause disruption to infrastructure and services at massive scape.

I’ll be drone for Christmas: London airport closed for day by drone harassment

Gatwick CEO says drone flights designed to “bring maximum disruption” for Christmas.

Enlarge / LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 20: A Police helicopter flies over Gatwick Airport as they search for the Drone operator causing closure of the airport on December 20, 2018. (credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

In what appears to be the first intentional use of drones to disrupt civil aviation, continued sightings of two remotely piloted aircraft flying over and around the airfield at London's Gatwick Airport starting the evening of December 19 have forced the airport to remain closed to flights for over a day. In a letter posted to Gatwick's website, Gatwick Airport's CEO called the continued drone activity "a highly targeted activity which has been designed to close the airport and bring maximum disruption in the run up to Christmas." He also said the airport is cooperating with law enforcement to end the "criminal activity."

As of 7:00pm London time on Thursday, Gatwick's runway was still unavailable for takeoffs and landings "because of continued drone sightings," the airport announced, and some airlines have cancelled all flights until further notice. "We apologize to all of our passengers who are impacted today, but the safety of our passengers and all staff is our priority," an airport spokesperson said.

Drone sightings have been a safety concern around London's airports for some time. In 2016, a British Airways flight landing at London's Heathrow Airport apparently struck a drone while on approach for landing. Earlier that year, the United Kingdom's Airprox air safety board issued an incident report on a near-miss in which a quadcopter drone passed within 20 feet of a landing Airbus A319 at Heathrow. And just a month ago, a drone came within 32 feet of a commuter aircraft landing at Edinburgh Airport. In the US, there have been hundreds of such incidents reported in recent years.

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