Every year, thousands of filmmakers, actors, and fans gather on the southern coast of France for the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Under the spotlight of the world’s media, they flock to the streets, restaurants, and screening rooms to celebrate cinema and find the next big thing. And while they worried about securing tickets, interviews, and deals, they didn’t have to worry about the unsolicited intrusions of aerial cameras. A drone monitoring system called AeroScope, manufactured by DJI, was used by police officers to spot drones in the no-fly zone long before they could fly close to attendees and pose a security risk.
For DJI, the Cannes festival is a worldwide event where we are proud to have AeroScope monitoring DJI drones in the closed airspace. From temporary events such as festivals, government events, and major sporting events, to fixed sites such as airports, prisons, and nuclear power plants, AeroScope is a simple and robust technical solution to provide immediate information about DJI drones in the area, from flight trajectories to pilot positions to serial numbers.
DJI first proposed, developed, and deployed AeroScope in 2017, when regulators and law enforcement began looking for a technical solution to identify drones flying in certain areas. In March of that year, DJI published a white paper outlining how a system using existing technology could enable drones to fly safely in crowded skies, offering authorities a way to monitor drone traffic while protecting operators’ privacy. Seven months later, DJI demonstrated a working version of AeroScope at an event in Washington, demonstrating that the system worked well in practice. By the end of 2017, AeroScope units were in operation at airports and other locations, providing real-world accountability for DJI drones years before regulators set their own standards.
Today, governments are implementing their own mandatory remote identification systems for drones. This is a good time to review how AeroScope works and functions and, just as importantly, what it does not do. We want to break down some recent myths about how AeroScope works and the data it provides, but we also want the drone community to understand that questions about drone pilots’ flight data will become even more relevant as the Remote ID requirement takes effect.
Simple technology, simple interface
Every remote ID system seeks to answer a basic drone question: what is that drone doing? The vast majority of drone pilots fly safely and responsibly, often enjoying an aerial perspective on the world or doing important work such as inspecting bridges and surveying construction sites. But when a drone flies into a sensitive location, or when people are concerned enough about a drone to call the police, authorities want to know basic information about it: its flight path, the location of its pilot, and identifying information such as its serial number or registration number.
DJI has developed AeroScope to answer these questions, with a simple technical solution for remote identification designed to work in almost any situation. Each DJI drone continuously transmits an encoded radio signal with basic information, including the drone’s location, altitude, speed, and direction, the location from which it was launched, and the location of the drone pilot and the drone’s serial number. This signal can be picked up by an AeroScope receiver, such as the one used by the French authorities in Cannes; when it receives an AeroScope signal, it displays the drone’s flight path and other information in a simple interface on a computer screen. Every DJI drone automatically transmits AeroScope information; there is no way for the user to turn off the signal because that would defeat the purpose of AeroScope to promote responsible and accountable drone use.
The AeroScope signal is parallel to, but distinct from, the signal that transmits flight information and video to the drone’s remote controller. Unlike almost all other DJI drone data, the AeroScope signal is not encrypted because it is intended to be easily processed by a receiver that may not be nearby. Furthermore, while not encrypted, it is protected by a proprietary signal protocol that is not easy to understand.
Airspace is a public resource for everyone, and just like any public space, it should be open to a wide range of uses, for work and for play. When DJI developed AeroScope, there were no rules or standards for remote drone identification, but we believed the world needed a voluntary system, and we thought carefully about what information should be included and who should have access to it. Over time, we are pleased that we have found a fair balance between the flight rights of drone pilots and the legitimate interests of security officials who need to protect the public by monitoring airspace and demonstrating that drone traffic can be managed safely.
AeroScope in action
AeroScope is an elegant system that solves a complex problem with a simple solution. Our customers have told us countless stories of AeroScope units that have helped prevent drones from flying too close to airport runways, major sporting events, prisons, and other sensitive locations.
For law enforcement professionals who need to be able to identify drones in flight, a key feature of AeroScope is the real-time display of the pilot’s location required by new U.S. and European regulations. This allows personnel to be dispatched immediately to find that person and investigate further to determine whether it is an authorized flight, an inadvertent error, or a potential threat. The pilot’s location is built into the AeroScope signal and cannot be disabled.
Even those who fly drones for fun may have reason to be wary; some drone pilots have been confronted and attacked by people who do not want a drone flying near them. That’s why AeroScope was designed with built-in privacy: The signal is available only to receivers within the radio range of a drone. Flight data is acquired locally, not as part of an Internet-based network. AeroScope performs an important law enforcement function, but DJI has always considered pilot safety as well.
The questions that don’t go away
Over the past five years, AeroScope has done a remarkable job of keeping the skies safe, even as the number of drones in the air has grown phenomenally. But it is a voluntary system that only works for one manufacturer, and governments are finally stepping in with their own mandatory remote identification requirements for all drones. This means there will be new approaches to the kind of data available on drone pilots and who can access it.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will require drones to transmit Remote ID information that can be read by a commonly used handheld device, such as a smartphone. There are no restrictions on who can use this data: Anyone wondering what a drone is doing in their vicinity will be able to open an app on their phone and see the drone’s flight data, including the pilot’s location. This means that as Remote ID is phased in, drone pilots will have their flight paths and locations visible to anyone. The FAA has considered and rejected objections to this rule, and drone pilots should prepare for any consequences.
Of course, DJI will comply with this and all other legal requirements for Remote ID signals, in the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and all other countries where rules are in place. We assume other manufacturers will as well.