DRM for Drones Will Fail

by on January 28, 2015 · 0 comments

I suppose it was inevitable that the DRM wars would come to the world of drones. Reporting for the Wall Street Journal today, Jack Nicas notes that:

In response to the drone crash at the White House this week, the Chinese maker of the device that crashed said it is updating its drones to disable them from flying over much of Washington, D.C.SZ DJI Technology Co. of Shenzhen, China, plans to send a firmware update in the next week that, if downloaded, would prevent DJI drones from taking off within the restricted flight zone that covers much of the U.S. capital, company spokesman Michael Perry said.

Washington Post reporter Brian Fung explains what this means technologically:

The [DJI firmware] update will add a list of GPS coordinates to the drone’s computer telling it where it can and can’t go. Here’s how that system works generally: When a drone comes within five miles of an airport, Perry explained, an altitude restriction gets applied to the drone so that it doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft. Within 1.5 miles, the drone will be automatically grounded and won’t be able to fly at all, requiring the user to either pull away from the no-fly zone or personally retrieve the device from where it landed. The concept of triggering certain actions when reaching a specific geographic area is called “geofencing,” and it’s a common technology in smartphones. Since 2011, iPhone owners have been able to create reminders that alert them when they arrive at specific locations, such as the office.

This is complete overkill and it almost certainly will not work in practice. First, this is just DRM for drones, and just as DRM has failed in most other cases, it will fail here as well. If you sell somebody a drone that doesn’t work within a 15-mile radius of a major metropolitan area, they’ll be online minutes later looking for a hack to get it working properly. And you better believe they will find one.

Second, other companies or even non-commercial innovators will just use such an opportunity to promote their DRM-free drones, making the restrictions on other drones futile.

Perhaps, then, the government will push for all drone manufacturers to include DRM on their drones, but that’s even worse. The idea that the Washington, DC metro area should be a completely drone-free zone is hugely troubling. We might as well put up a big sign at the edge of town that says, “Innovators Not Welcome!”

And this isn’t just about commercial operators either. What would such a city-wide restriction mean for students interested in engineering or robotics in local schools? Or how about journalists who might want to use drones to help them report the news?

For these reasons, a flat ban on drones throughout this or any other city just shouldn’t fly.

Moreover, the logic behind this particular technopanic is particularly silly. It’s like saying that we should install some sort of kill switch in all automobile ignitions so that they will not start anywhere in the DC area on the off chance that one idiot might use their car to drive into the White House fence. We need clear and simple rules for drone use; not technically-unworkable and unenforceable bans on all private drone use in major metro areas.

[Update 1/30: Washington Post reporter Matt McFarland was kind enough to call me and ask for comment on this matter. Here’s his excellent story on “The case for not banning drone flights in the Washington area,” which included my thoughts.]

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