Geofencing on drones can be considered a good or bad thing depending on which pilot you may speak to. There is a real division among drone pilots when it comes to Geofencing. If you’re a manufacturer or the FAA, the lines on Geofencing were drawn a long time ago.
Companies such as DJI have implemented Geofencing in their craft ever since the first discussions about geofencing.
However, companies such as Autel have taken the other side and have no geofencing on their aircraft. Whether that remains true in the future, only time will tell.
Other companies such as Parrot or Yuneec have employed Geofencing in some limited form in their models for a while now. Before you decide if Geofencing is a good or bad thing, let’s see what it is and how it works.
What is Geofencing?
A Geofence is a virtual, invisible barrier that surrounds a specific area. This barrier will provide a warning when approaching such a Geofenced boundary.
In terms of drones, a Geofence can and does prevent a drone from flying into a restricted zone such as an airport or over a prison, for example.
Geofences are created by using position location technology such as GPS (Global Positions Satellites), RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), WIFI, and of course your drone’s software.
Geofences are used in all kinds of different technologies nowadays. It does not just block a drone from flying into a restricted, geofenced area.
You may not even be aware of it, but the technology for geofencing is all around us, not just in the skies. They can be found in smart home devices, vehicles, on farms, and many other places.
Think of that little Roomba running around your house and how it learned its boundaries. That is in essence a Geofence it created.
Or think of how your car might unlock as you approach it. All of that is a form of geofencing, using a GPS signal or RFID, or even WiFi to mark or create boundaries.
As mentioned above, they create an invisible geographical fence around a specific area which is usually set up by the application you’re using.
As a drone pilot, you may have even employed geofencing yourself. Othromosiac mapping comes to mind. In that case, you created your own geofence around an area for the flight and limited the drone to that area only.
Now that we know what Geofencing is and how it is all around us, let’s focus on how it affects our drones.
Geofencing and drones
Geofencing is a bit of programming found in most drones. DJI products especially use the drone’s GPS receivers to automatically enforce airspace restrictions based on where the craft is located.
It uses a digital airspace chart that has no-fly zones and other areas where drone flight may be restricted.
If you have ever come across one of these areas without a unlock in place, well, your drone would have stopped in midflight or even worse yet, just refused to take off entirely. That can be an extremely frustrating moment.
This feature was introduced in the early 2010s with the leading drone manufacturer (DJI) in collaboration with location partners such as Airmap and Precision Hawk. They worked and designed the Geofencing system we know today.
Since its inception, DJI introduced the first geofence in 2013 with a finalized version in 2015. It has been adopted by other manufacturers as well as other location companies that provide GPS positioning data for drones.
In most cases, coming across a geofence will only require you to acknowledge your responsibility for flying in that area. Other times you will have to take an extra step and put in for an unlock.
Geofencing and FAA Airspace Authorization
Is geofencing the same as having an FAA Airspace Authorization?
No, they are two separate entities that have and serve similar or the same purpose. It’s redundancy, something you will find to be quite common in aviation.
If I have an airspace authorization, why would I need a Geofence unlock?
Due to being separate from one another, unlocking a geofence is an extra step you would need to take to fly in that area, even if you already have an FAA airspace authorization.
In some cases, your FAA Airspace Authorization will be needed to unlock a geofenced area. This is also where a lot of the controversy comes in with Geofencing.
Some pilots, ok many pilots, believe jumping through hoops such as getting LAANC approval and then having to go through getting a Geofence unlock as well can be burdensome.
Alright, it’s a pain in the keister. It is! Which of course leads us to ask…
Is Geofencing really needed?
As I’ve pointed out, there are two camps to this question and it’s a loaded question at that. One word comes to mind over any other. SAFETY!
FAA airspace authorizations are needed when flying in sensitive areas, such as around airports. With LAANC you will be provided information specific to drone flights in these areas such as height restrictions and the like.
With an airspace authorization, you will still be able to conduct drone operations in these sensitive areas, although there may be limitations.
Geofencing on the other hand, although also dealing with these sorts of areas, won’t have the same information. It is either locked or unlocked.
So, the limits found in the airspace authorization are not the same as that within a geofence. A geofence will not limit you in regard to height, or another limit the FAA may have in place.
What a Geofence unlock really shows is that you took the time to plan out the flight and learn about the area prior to takeoff. Can that really be a bad thing! NO!
Every flight a drone pilot makes should be thought out and planned. Yes, even those flights from your backyard around your home should be thought out and planned. Once again, it’s about Safety.
It also forces you to acknowledge that you are aware that you are in such an area and that you take responsibility for your actions during the flight. It’s this last part that really matters as it’s a legal issue. It frees the manufacturer of responsibility and puts the onus on you the Pilot.
Types of Geofencing
Here we’re going to be specific and use DJI as our example company, seeing as they are the dominant company in the marketplace and have an established Geofence system in place.
DJI has a tiered zone system.
Of the types of zones, only two types will require you to take the extra steps of getting an unlock. These two zones are the Authorization Zones and the Restricted Zones.
All other zones can be accessed in the field by a click of acknowledgment within the app you’re using.
An Authorization Zone is depicted by the color blue on the DJI geofencing maps. Flight within this area is not allowed by default.
When within one of these zones, your drone will not take off without first unlocking the zone.
These zones will need to be unlocked by inputting your flight controller serial number into the DJI website, located here, Fly Safe – DJI to obtain the unlock license all while having your tablet, drone, and controller hooked up and on with an active Wi-Fi connection and being signed into your DJI account.
Restricted zones are depicted in red and typically consist of landing and departure ends of runways and over high-security buildings such as government buildings, prisons, or military installations.
Restricted zones require you to submit documentation from the controlling agency to DJI in order to unlock the zone. Other than that, it really isn’t much different from unlocking an authorization zone as above. In this case, you will need an FAA airspace authorization to enter into the unlock page to unlock that zone.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the information between an FAA Airspace Authorization Map and DJI’s Authorization Zone Map. You will see they are very different.
As we can see above, the information between the two maps is quite different. The areas each map cover is similar but not the same.
In the above maps, we have two airports in and around Nashville TN. One is Nashville International Airport, and the other is John C. Turner airport.
If flying around either of these two airports, we would need to put in for a LAANC authorization, but we would not necessarily need to put in for an unlock through the DJI Fly safe website.
Let’s go in a bit closer so you can see the change.
As shown above, the two maps change quite a bit as we zoom in.
First, you will notice that there are many places where an FAA airspace authorization will be required, whereas the Geofence map will allow flights in areas that won’t require an unlock but will still require an airspace authorization.
Some areas closer to the airport grounds and off the runways will require both. Redundancy and safety, that’s what is all about.
Manufacturers such as DJI and others want drones to be successful. Heck, they need them to be it’s their business. They want you to get out there and fly.
What no one wants is for those flights to interfere with manned aviation and of course, cause any damage or injuries to people or property.
When Geofencing came out, the drone industry was just starting to find its footing. In many ways, it still is. Oh sure, we’ve made our presence known in many new fields and industries.
Changing public perceptions, however, takes time. Every time a drone pilot ends up in the news in a negative fashion, it puts our whole industry at risk. Let’s be honest, not every news story is a drone doing something good.
As drone pilots, we often forget that not everyone is on board with having aircraft such as ours flying over their homes and businesses.
Even today drone pilots have encounters with people who don’t understand the technology and are fearful of what that drone might be doing.
There are encounters with individuals who may be angry or upset that a drone is above them or their home, even though that drone may not even be looking in their direction.
Personally, in these cases, I follow the FAA’s guidance and try to educate instead of frustrate and I have luckily had good success with that.
Explaining the camera system and the nature of the wide-angle lens, allowing the person to view what I the pilot am viewing – in some cases, it even helps to explain what it takes to get that drone in the air in certain areas.
As a rule of thumb, most people in the general population have no idea what it takes and the work you put in to become a Drone Pilot.
For instance, learning airspaces and navigating geofences, planning out your flights so they can be conducted in a safe fashion where any risk is limited, etc.
Let’s be honest with ourselves here, there is always a risk. Every time you take off, there is a risk that the aircraft may do something unplanned. A prop may break, you may encounter an obstacle, and winds at higher altitudes are always higher than those found on the ground and may be too much for your craft to handle.
As drone pilots, our job is to mitigate those risks to their smallest percentage. Equipment checks, airspace knowledge, and yes even dealing with geofencing. All of these help us as pilots to mitigate the risk.
Pros and Cons of Geofencing
Overall, Geofencing is probably a good thing. The days of the wild west of drone piloting have gone by. As one of the early adopters of drone piloting, I was there in those early days.
Those days before the FAA really had much to say on the matter, we were flying everywhere back then, and in some cases where we shouldn’t be.
As with all things, the times have changed. Today more and more drones are present in our skies and having a thorough knowledge of airspaces and the restrictions and regulations is a must.
- Airspace Safety
One of the primary reasons for Geofencing is SAFETY. Prior to Geofencing and FAA regulation, you could fly just about anywhere. There were little to no restrictions to stop a drone pilot. It really was designed to keep malicious pilots from endangering our national airspace.
We all remember the Phantom crash on the white house lawn. These types of systems help the rest of us pilots from being that guy.
- Pilot Accountability
Another benefit to Geofencing is that it holds the pilot more accountable for the actions they take while flying, as it makes a point to contain your information and makes it easier for your drone operations to be tracked in the event something goes wrong.
In most cases, I like to believe the intent wasn’t to be a bad actor so to speak. Just an oversight or mistake on the pilot’s part, so being able to track down that pilot and educate them on the risks and regulations is important.
- Drone Registration
Geofencing certainly leads to more aircraft being registered. It is required after all, and the cost is negligible. It’s only $5.00 for a two-year period, but more importantly, it connects an owner’s name to the aircraft, something that can be traced back to the pilot, keeping the Pilot honest and less likely to be operating in a way that would be considered unsafe or even illegal.
As shown above there are reasons for geofencing and the need to track drone flights, especially around sensitive areas where a drone could interact with manned flights or be operating in an unsafe manner. There are drawbacks though.
I am reminded of one flight I had recently, that I needed to conduct that left me bothered. In this case, I had not only an FAA Airspace Authorization in place, but I also had a Geofence unlock in place as well.
Here’s the kicker – there were three Geofences in that particular area. The geofencing was overlapped. So just having the one unlock, well it didn’t unlock the area I was in and the aircraft would not take off.
In this instance I lost the time involved to go to and from the site, my client lost the timely return of the assets they needed and I had to use a drone that did not have Geofencing in order to get the job completed.
Was it an unneeded hassle? Yes, yes it was. In this situation there just wasn’t a way to unlock all three of the geofences involved.
- Time-Sensitive Operations
One of the biggest cons involved with Geofencing is the operation of Time-sensitive flights. Over the years more and more emergency services have gone to employing drones to assist with a certain task. Think of Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement, and Firefighting.
That time spent getting that craft unlocked could very well be a matter of life or death. Let’s look at a house fire situation. With the technology today, infrared camera systems, for example, that aircraft can see through smoke as if it isn’t there, whereas the Firefighters on the ground may be blinded by that very smoke.
A drone equipped with such a system could identify a person trapped that the firefighters may not have been aware of. In this regard having that aircraft in the air could lead to that person being saved or not.
- Planned Flights
With Geofencing, flights require additional planning and time prior to making the flight. This takes the spontaneity out of drone flights and pretty much eliminates the stop-and-fly sort of flights many of us enjoy.
This is also where much of the controversy comes in for pilots. After all, no one likes someone always looking over their shoulder and many pilots feel they have the right to fly as they see fit. In this regard, they’re not wrong, but then again, they’re not right either.
Piloting a drone, whether it is as a hobbyist or a commercial pilot, is a privilege. One that if abused can be taken away. This doesn’t just affect drone pilots but all pilots. In the manned pilot realm, they have rules and regulations just as we do and if not followed, they can suffer consequences.
We’re all aware of the Red Bull flight that occurred recently, where two manned pilots took part in a stunt that was not approved by the FAA, and they went ahead with the flight anyway. Now due to that both pilots are in trouble and have had their pilot certificates taken away from them.
Here it doesn’t matter which side you fall into being for or against geofencing. We all have to admit there are pilots that just don’t fly by the rules as they are laid out, whether it is registering the aircraft or flying in restricted areas without going through the process of getting approvals for those flights.
Geofencing is a way of making them be honest and hopefully not ruining it for everyone else. The thing to keep in mind is that we are Aviators and as such we operate objects that can and sometimes do fall from the sky and there is always a potential risk to those on the ground. It is due to this risk that we as pilots need to always be operating within the rules.
Bad things may happen, and they’re not called accidents for no reason. They are not something you plan, so being able to say you were within the rules will play a big part in how that bad situation works out for you.
In the end, it’s your choice to purchase a Geofenced drone product or seek out one that doesn’t have such restrictions. Autel touts that they don’t have geofencing and they make quality systems that are equal to DJI’s in many ways.
It also doesn’t matter which camp you’re in on this topic, being for or against geofencing. Just remember, you’re not only flying for yourself out there but for every other drone pilot as well.
It’s on us the pilots of these crafts to not only convince the FAA but everyone else that we can and do operate our craft in the safest possible manner and that the rules we currently have work.
The other side of that prop is that if we don’t do this, we will see more and more limitations and regulations to make us compliant. I’ll simply say this, Remote ID!
Fly Safe, Fly Always, Always Fly Safe!