Back in 2014 Autel Robotics was founded. Headquartered in the drone capital of the world, Shenzhen, China, Autel Robotics has an extensive and developed presence in Seattle, Washington, and Silicon Valley in California.
In 2015, the Autel X-Star was released.
Likened to the DJI Phantom line of drones because of its initial design, the X-Star (lovingly referred to by many in the drone community as the flying pumpkin) stood out among the crowd, literally.
In 2016, the X-Star Premium, with its removable camera gimbal, was released, being awarded the highest-rated drone on Amazon at the time.
Over the next 6 years, Autel Robotics would release a slew of fantastic consumer and prosumer drones, such as the Evo, Evo II 8k, Pro, Enterprise, RTK, and Thermal, Lite/Lite+, and Nano/Nano+ lines.
As of the release of this article, Autel Evo II drones, with the newest firmware and Autel Explorer app, have Geofencing and No Fly Zones built in.
However, currently, in the US, these features are not mandatory or active. No unlocks are needed.
For Autel Nano and Lite users, there is no geofencing, so there is no unlocking needed. And furthermore, you are able to fly where and when you’d like as soon as you remove the drone from its box.
» MORE: Autel Evo Lite+ Review
Note: It has been rumored that the geofencing on the Autel Evo II drones could be activated in the US in the future. However, there is no official word on whether this will occur, as yet.
The Definition of Geofencing
What is geofencing?
Geofencing is the process of restricting a drone from entering various airspace or geographical zones, through the manufacturer’s flight software and firmware.
It is easiest to think of geofencing as an invisible fence that limits your ability to fly from, within, or through certain zones, without prior authorization and customizable unlocks, found on some popular drone lines.
Where can you expect to see these geo-zones?
They are typically around areas such as Airports, Helicopter launch and landing pads, concerts and other stadium events and games, and corrections facilities (i.e. jails), just to name a few locations.
Although geofencing has been a severely sore subject among many drone owners, geofencing has been implemented by various drone manufacturers as a safety precaution for aircraft in manned airspace.
The idea of implementing geofencing was initiated because there are indeed some in the community that are going to fly their drones as far and high as they can while disregarding the safety laws put in place by the FAA.
While there are those that disregard these laws, there are even more drone operators that do follow the laws put in place but would like the option to choose for themselves where and when they can fly.
Identifying Flight Area Concerns
If you are using an older version of the Autel Explorer app (as I am below) or using the Autel Sky app for the Nano and Lite series, there are no on-screen map warnings of nearby places of caution.
If I was using the DJI Fly app, there would be a No Fly zone overlay just east of my current location.
If you are flying an Evo II series, in or near a no-fly zone with the most up-to-date version of the firmware and Explorer app, you will be given an onscreen warning message that basically informs you that you are in a no-fly zone and that there may be consequences of flying there.
To find out what types of zones are in your area, one of the easier methods is by downloading a 3rd party app for either Android or iOS.
In this case, I’d suggest B4UFLY, a free app provided by the FAA and in partnership with ALOFT, that gives you up-to-date Geo and Warning zones in your area.
As was mentioned, B4UFLY is an app that the FAA initiated in partnership with ALOFT (formerly Kittyhawk) to help drone operators to know if it is safe or not to fly their drones, provided their drone software does not have this information built in.
As worded by the FAA: “B4UFLY is the simple way for drone operators to check airspace and local advisories before taking flight.”
Needed Zone Information at a Glance
The user interface on the B4UFLY app is simple and intuitive. Also, there is not much you need to do or thumb through in order to get vital zone information.
Right on the main screen of the app, you’ll be able to see if you a clear to take off and, if not, any nearby concerns.
If you’d like to see a little more information about nearby “concerns,” simply slide up on the screen and you will be presented with nearby warnings. In my case, that would be a Hospital Helipad and a nearby Sea Plane launch site.
In this particular instance, where I was flying, there were no warning zones nearby. Once the map is zoomed out (as seen below), however, then a clearer picture can be drawn based on the surrounding area.
As can be seen above, there are various colored areas on the map. These are layers that spell out how the zone is designated.
These zones are as follows (with supporting screenshots):
- Notify and Fly – This layer displays active flight volumes of other recreational, commercial, and government/law enforcement drone pilots who have shared their flight intent to aid in the total situational awareness of all pilots in the area.
- Temporary Flight Restrictions – This layer displays TFRs for areas restricted to fight due to a hazardous condition, a special event, or a general warning for the airspace.
This layer will display a yellow (warning) state for upcoming TFRs, and switch to a red (restricted) state for active TFRs.
- Special Use Airspace – This layer displays areas where drones and other aircraft are not permitted to fly without special permission.
- National Security UAS Flight Restrictions – This layer displays security-sensitive restrictions that prohibit drones from flying over designated national security-sensitive facilities.
- Special Air Traffic Rules – Part 93 sites, including the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) and Flight Restriction Zone (FRZ), where drone flights are prohibited.
- Stadiums – This layer displays the corresponding radius of stadiums where flights would be restricted during Major League Baseball, National Football League, NCAA, and motor speedway events.
Note: TFRs will also be in effect for these areas when events are active.
- Controlled Airspace – This layer displays different classifications of airspace and defined dimensions within which air traffic control (ATC) service is provided in accordance with the airspace classification.
Note: Operations in Class B, C, D, and E airspace are allowed with the required permission/authorization such as LAANC.
- Airports – This layer displays areas on land or water intended to be used either wholly or in part for the arrival, departure, and surface movement of aircraft/helicopters.
Note: Not all airports are controlled or towered, but extreme caution should be used in these areas.
- National Parks – This layer displays National Parks that have been classified as “no drone” zones after 2014. Flying here could incur stiff fines and penalties.
Note: Local or state parks and such may have their own takeoff/landing restrictions, regardless of the airspace above.
- Local Advisories – This layer provides localized situational awareness to aid in a safe and compliant flight with information about local regulations, operational advisories, and airspace activity.
- Geo Portal Advisories – This layer provides localized situational awareness to aid in a safe and compliant flight with information about local regulations, operational advisories, and airspace activity.
It is easy to get all of the information one would need to ascertain if flights can be performed in any area of concern.
What is also nice, for those of us that do mission preplanning, is the ability to check ahead of time to see if the area you’ll be flying has any warning or no-fly zones. This can be done on a PC or Mac by going to the FAA’s B4UFLY site.
When on the site, you can simply put in an area code, address, or zip code. If you don’t know the exact address, you can move the location pin anywhere on the map when you locate your area of interest.
Below is a screenshot of the actual B4UFLY desktop site.
Just like with the app, you can change the layers (so as to see satellite view), and all of the no-fly and warning zones will be visible if there are any within your flying location.
Using the FAA’s official B4UFLY app and desktop, you can rest assured knowing that you are flying legally in your area of choice.
The Matter of Flying “Legally”
Although Autel drones do not currently enforce geofenced zones, thus allowing one to fly wherever they’d like, whenever they’d like, we do have the responsibility of flying in a manner that keeps individuals in manned aircraft safe.
Although many areas are restricted by the FAA, Autel owners can still apply to legally fly through this restricted airspace. This can be done through the use of LAANC.
Flying Geozones using LAANC
LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization Notification Capability) is software that is used to automate the process of approving and denying drone operator requests to fly in Class B, Class C, Class D, and Class E controlled airspace in the US.
Currently, LAANC is available for 700+ airports, across the US.
If an individual is flying under Part 107 or Recreational rules, and is seeking to request LAANC approval to fly in controlled airspace, a 3rd party app will need to be installed on your smartphone or other electronic devices to make the request.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with enforcing laws that make civilian aviation safer.
In this appointed position, they are the authority when it comes to where and how drone operators can fly, in certain airspace.
Below are the exact definitions of the classes of controlled airspace, as defined by the FAA:
- Class B airspace is generally airspace from the ground surface to 10,000 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level) surrounding the nation’s busiest airports in terms of airport operations or passenger enplanements.
- Class C airspace is generally airspace from the ground surface to 4,000 feet above the airport elevation (charted in MSL) surrounding those airports that have an operational control tower, are serviced by a radar approach control, and have a certain number of IFR (instrument flight rules) operations or passenger enplanements.
- Class D airspace is generally airspace from the surface to 2,500 feet above the airport elevation (charted in MSL) surrounding those airports that have an operational control tower.
- Class E airspace is the controlled airspace not classified as Class A, B, C, or D airspace. A large amount of the airspace over the United States is designated as Class E airspace.
Visually seeing the different classes of airspace can help us to understand why getting proper approvals and authorizations prior to flying in certain zones is so important.
How to request LAANC Authorization
For a drone operator to get approval to fly in certain airspace, a request through LAANC needs to be made.
Depending on the provider you are using, this can be done while either out in the field from your phone (the most common way) or requested in advance from a computer.
To get LAANC authorizations, I mostly use AIRMAP, as I make quite a lot of LAANC requests from my computer when setting up shoots for our companies’ clients beforehand.
The Airmap app is available for both iOS and Android:
Step 1. After downloading the software, you will need to Sign up for an account.
Note: Make sure to include all of your information, as LAANC will use your cell phone number to send approvals.
Step 2. After your account has been set up, log in, and you will then be in the map view.
I have my screen centered on Bird Key on the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, which is in range of an airport with LAANC approval (SRQ).
You will notice on your map that where there is controlled airspace, there will be grids with numbers on them.
These numbers (in my case, 200) signify the maximum drone height (in feet) allowed.
Step 3. To fly in a particular area, you will need to Create a Flight Plan. To do this, press the flight plan button, which looks like a blue and white paper airplane.
This will zoom you into the portion of the map you are looking at with an adjustable radius. You can move your flight center point to wherever you’d like and resize it with the radius slider at the bottom.
Step 4. Tap the Next button on the top right to go to modify/add your flight plan details.
Step 5. After you have entered all of the criteria and options, press the Next button at the bottom of the screen.
This will then bring you to the Flight Briefing screen. Simply hit Submit Flight, and you should have your authorization within seconds.
Once this process was complete, I then went and took the following picture.
While Autel drones do not have active geofencing, if you’d like to fly safely in controlled airspace, there are various app options available to see where these areas are and receive the proper authorizations to fly therein.