Chinese manufacturer programs Phantom drones with no-fly zones to protect Australian airports
14th April 2014
One of the world’s leading manufacturers of small commercial and hobbyist drones is introducing technology to prevent its unmanned aircraft from flying near 10 major Australian airports.
In announcing what it calls “No Fly Zones” safety modifications, China-based DJI Innovations will modify software that provides satellite GPS guidance for its highly popular ‘Phantom’ series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The drones will be blocked from operating near 350 airports around the world by creating an electronic ‘geo-fence’ around airports to reduce the risk of collision between drones and manned aircraft.
An eight-kilometre exclusion zone will be established around 10 major Australian airports.
The DJI Phantom will be unable to take off within a 2.4-kilometre radius of the designated airport.
DJI’s Australian No Fly Zone list
- Sydney – Mascot
- Melbourne – Tullamarine
- Gold Coast
- Port Hedland
- Cocos Islands airport
- Christmas Island airport
From 2.4 to eight kilometres out a graduated height limit will apply. Smaller airports on Cocos and Christmas Islands that have been categorised by DJI as ‘Category B’ will be surrounded by smaller no-fly exclusion zones.
Company spokesman Michael Perry says “even if you fly in manual mode and you fly into the zone, and there is a GPS signal, you are still going to be subject to the safety features”.
DJI’s restrictions will still not comply with Australian law, which requires commercial and hobbyist unmanned aircraft flyers to stay at least 5.5 km away from airfields and helipads.
The announcement by the Hong Kong and Shenzhen-based DJI caught Australian industry and regulators by surprise – although it has been welcomed amid increased safety concerns over the rapidly growing numbers of small drones taking to the skies.
“I’m very encouraged that a manufacturer is taking that step because unmanned aircraft of that type, particularly when they are used by inexperienced users who aren’t familiar with the regulations, may create hazards for other aircraft,” says Dr Reece Clothier, aerospace engineer and UAV expert at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
“So building in safety hazards like DJI is doing is a great catch to prevent those situations happening.”
Australia’s civil aviation regulator CASA, which is currently grappling with the air safety and privacy issues posed by drone technology, was also unaware of DJI’s initiative.
Spokesman Peter Gibson says CASA has not lobbied the Chinese drone manufacturer.
“The only thing we would say to users of course is to be very mindful that only a very small number of aerodromes are blocked, in using this machine…so you wouldn’t want people, thinking, I’m right to fly anywhere because, if it is letting me do it, it must be OK,” he said.
“Be mindful of the fact that if there are 10 aerodromes in Australia in the (DJI) system, that’s only 10 out of 400 or 500.”
Company spokesman Michael Perry says DJI plans to expand the no-fly zone network.
“We haven’t spoken to (CASA) and that’s something that we are very interested in,” he said.
In Australia, DJI Phantoms are available through hobby shops, camera stores and online. There are no accurate sales figures, but one leading supplier estimates there are more than 2,000 Phantoms already in Australia. The majority are operated by hobbyists, who require no airworthiness certification or operating licence.
Tiananmen no-fly zone raises sovereignty, censorship questions
DJI’s No Fly Zone system creates a curious technological and sovereignty precedent. The initiative will effectively give a Chinese company indirect control over the movement of unmanned aircraft in Australian airspace – and in the skies of dozens of other nations.
While DJI says its initiative is solely motivated by safety, there are concerns that drone flying restrictions could be easily exploited for political censorship.
Last year DJI controversially conducted its first field-test of the ‘No Fly Zone’ technology, creating a geo-fence that prevented the flight of all Phantoms within a 15 kilometre radius of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Drone hobbyists claimed the company was bowing to censorship by preventing flights near one of China’s most politically sensitive landmarks. Since the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, Chinese security officials frequently obstruct foreign media and activists attempting to film around the Square.
Due to its plug-in-and-fly simplicity and relatively low cost, the DJI Phantom has become the drone of choice for protest movements from Istanbul to Bangkok. Activists now regularly deploy the HD-camera equipped craft to monitor police movements and publicise their protests.
To counter activist use, Chinese security officials opted for a Tiananmen Square geo-fence, while riot police in Turkey and Egypt, have taken a more direct approach, shooting down protester-operated Phantoms. (see pics)
Many media organisations, including the ABC and the Nine Network, have also deployed DJI Phantoms on international news assignments.
Gary Mortimer, editor of leading international industry website sUAS News, says DJI imposed the no-fly zone over Tiananmen Square “because they were told to” by Chinese authorities.
“I know that the Tiananmen Square restrictions caused fly-aways and things like that – so hopefully they’ve fixed that problem,” he said.
A flyaway is when the ground operator loses control of the drone after the radio communications link is lost.
Mr Mortimer says DJI drones are “notorious” for fly-aways.
“But I think that is the end user not letting the thing get GPS lock, not waiting long enough – so then the machine doesn’t really know where it is,” he explains.
The drone requires a simultaneous GPS lock on between five and seven satellites to operate effectively.
Mr Mortimer says DJI’s extension of no-fly zones to hundreds of the world’s major airports is “a positive thing”, although he notes many countries have not been included in the current no-fly list.
DJI does not release sales figures, but Mr Mortimer estimates that when the Phantom first launched in late 2012, the company was selling 8,000 units a month.
He believes there has since been a significant jump in global sales.
“In Europe, I know they sold more than 6,000 units just in Switzerland,” he says.
DJI Phantom 2- the stats
- Width: 35cm
- Take-off weight with HD camera: 1.16kg
- Maximum speed: 15 metres per second
- Range (variable): 500- 1000+ metres
- Endurance: up to 20 minutes
- Price: A$800 – $1,600 – depending on accessories.
DJI’s No Fly Zone initiative follows an incident-filled month for the burgeoning Australian commercial and hobbyist drone industry.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has launched an investigation into an incident on April 6 in Geraldton, WA, when a triathlon competitor was treated by paramedics after being struck on the head by a drone that was filming the event.
The drone’s operator was not on CASA’s list of 92 commercial operators who are required to have certification.
A week earlier, a Westpac Rescue Helicopter reported a near miss with a drone while flying at a height of 1,000 feet near Newcastle in NSW. A helicopter crewman said a collision could have been catastrophic for the aircraft and caused numerous casualties on the ground if the helicopter crashed in a built-up area.
On March 19, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released the findings of an investigation into another near miss between a crop-dusting aircraft and an approved commercial drone that was engaged in aerial surveying of a mine site. The report found the two aircraft came within 100 metres of each other.
Dr Clothier plays down the risk that DJI Phantoms and other small drones pose to large airliners.
“If it hit a (larger) aircraft I don’t think there would be significant damage,” he says.
“There is always a possibility it could be ingested in the engine, cause an ‘engine-out’ scenario in the very worst case.
“But they are fairly safe for that size and scale of unmanned aircraft. But if they collide with a smaller or lighter aircraft, general aviation aircraft, they could potentially do more severe damage if not distract the pilot, or even go through the windshield…(the) potential is there, but it’s very remote.”
While DJI will incorporate new safety features in software for its factory-built craft, there are no limitations on the burgeoning ‘garage drone’ movement. Dr Clothier notes that high performance small drone technology is now much cheaper and more accessible to consumers.
“With a bit of knowledge, a few spare parts, and some instructions on the internet, you can build these yourself,” he says.
“My students can do it in two days. They may not be commercial off-the-shelf, but they are just as capable as the ones being produced in China and imported.”
In addition to DJI Phantoms, there are now potentially tens of thousands of smaller, cheaper toy-like drones in Australia.
Drone technology has advanced at such rate, and the numbers of craft now flying have increased so dramatically, that CASA acknowledges that the current rules introduced in 2002 are hopelessly outdated.
CASA is now finalising sweeping changes to regulations governing the licensing system that will result in commercial operators of the smallest craft, such as the DJI Phantom, being effectively deregulated, as reported by ABC News Online in March 2013.
Dr Clothier, who sits on a CASA-industry regulation advisory panel, says, pending public consultation, the changes are imminent.
“It could be a month, two months maximum, provided there are no major problems identified in that engagement process,” he says.