Many drone programs have time-sensitive, urgent, and unpredictable operations. They have adopted drones because they can perform missions much faster, safer, and more efficiently. They put together a crew, send them into the field, and sometimes they arrive on scene unable to launch the drone they depend on. They’ve been locked out of the drone through geofencing that prevents take off.

This experience is one of the most common frustrations we hear from enterprise drone operators: geofencing – the safety feature intended to prevent drones from taking off from areas they should not is slowing down their workflow unnecessarily and without clear guidance. Does this feature strike the right balance between safety and practicality? Are we making it too difficult for certificated and authorized drone operators to quickly launch their aircraft? Will Remote ID and other technologies make any of these safety features obsolete?

Geofencing Was A Good First Step Towards Increased Safety

A geofence is a virtual geographic boundary, defined by GPS, RFID, or other location-tracking technology, that enables software to trigger a response when a mobile device enters or leaves a specific area. In the drone industry, geofencing technology is used to automatically prevent drones launching from or entering a specific area.

One way geofencing differs from other safety measures is that geofencing cannot be ignored. Alerts on your phone and physical “No Drone” signs can be ignored with a tap on a screen or simple willful ignorance. Geofencing caught on because it is arguably the simplest way to preemptively limit the ability of all drones to operate without the operator showing proof that they can legally operate at that location.

DJI, which manufactures over 76% of drones registered with the FAA, has used increasingly refined geofencing as part of its strategy to inform its users “where it is safe to fly, where it may raise concerns, and where flight is restricted”. Other manufacturers like Parrot, Autel, and Skydio do not feature similar geofencing capabilities. Parrot, for example, prompts their operators to specify how far away from them they want the drone to be able to fly as a sort of self-imposed geofence.

Good resources for unlocking your DJI drone include a video tutorial Kittyhawk made this fall and official guidance from DJI.

Where Does Geofencing Fall Short?

Geofencing in its current state applies to most drones universally and by default. Users have to take action to unlock a geofence, generally by acknowledging that the airspace is covered by a geofence and providing proof of their ability to legally operate there.

Increasingly, geofencing may be casting too wide of a net and not segmenting enough amongst operators affected by the geofence. Today’s certificated drone operators are more informed, professional, and safety-conscious than even a few years ago. They are more likely to be flying compliantly under Part 107 or a COA, utilizing LAANC for airspace authorizations, and following established best practices. These are the drone operators who understand the rules and are even more dependent on their drones to perform important, timely, and often life-saving work.

New Tools and Technology May Make Geofencing Less Necessary

Two technologies that have been growing slowly in the drone industry will likely move into the mainstream in 2020 – Remote ID and Counter-UAS. Both of these technologies may make geofencing less necessary or enable it to be more focused and responsive.

Remote ID technology may soon let authorized public safety officials identify drones while they are in the air and tie their registration number to a real individual or entity. In the near future, Remote ID will be required for almost every drone operating in the United States. You can learn more about Remote ID in Kittyhawk’s white paper, “Remote ID & Commercial Drones: Enabling Identification and Transparency in the National Airspace”.

Counter-UAS technology will soon let authorized public safety officials take action against drones while they are operating through physical or electronic means. More information on the state of counter-UAS systems can be found in this report from Bard College’s influential Center for the Study of the Drone.

What Do Remote ID and Counter-UAS Technology Mean for Geofencing?

In the near future, we will have mechanisms for identification, accountability, and kinetic solutions (physically taking action against non-compliant drones). These abilities will make geofencing less necessary, giving back valuable control to compliant drone operators.

When Remote ID enables public safety authorities to identify nearly any drone operating in the United States and tie that drone to a person or entity, they can quickly differentiate friend from foe and whether or not it has permission to operate at that location. Instead of using a geofence against all drones, geofences could be targeted solely at unidentified drones.

Counter-UAS technology attracting so much interest shows how far some stakeholders are willing to go to prevent unauthorized operations in certain areas. Geofencing, when applied too broadly, is itself a counter-drone feature, akin to using a rock when scissors are better suited for the task.
When counter-UAS systems are widespread and legal, some public safety authorities may have authorization to take action against non-compliant drones as needed, instead of preventing operations from happening at all.

These technologies may enable some countries to relax drone restrictions and take steps to open up their airspace to more drone operations. For example, India has taken recent steps to open up their airspace to more commercial operations, a significant departure from its previous policy called “No Permission No Takeoff (NPNT)”. This pattern seems likely to repeat itself in other countries whose initial restrictions on drones were overbroad but are now able to be relaxed now that the right technology is more accessible.

Remote ID Update

ASTM recently announced in a press release that their standard for network and broadcast Remote ID will be published in the coming weeks.

The NPRM for Remote ID is still scheduled to be released publicly on December 20, kicking off a 60 day comment period. Kittyhawk will be commenting and we encourage our user community to comment on the ways in which Remote ID may be helpful to your operation, as well as any concerns that you may have about Remote ID.

Talk to me about this on Twitter – I’d love to hear your thoughts.