Geofences and Responsible Drone Flight

Using geofencing with drones is sort of like invisible fencing for dogs. Instead of a collar, though, your drone wears some hard-coded programming that prevents it from flying in certain areas. This programming works in tandem with GPS and radio signals to restrict access to specific areas, from government buildings to airports to some private homes.

One of the major conversations taking place in the drone industry revolves around the question of responsibility. More specifically, who should be responsible for where drones are allowed to fly?

As you might expect, opinions are diverse. Should drone manufacturers be responsible for creating no-fly zones? Or should the operators themselves be responsible for staying away from restricted areas?

Regardless of how the drone rules unfold, geofencing is going to be an important part of the conversation.

The manufacturer’s burden?

Most higher-end drones (i.e. not toy-grade) have geofencing capabilities built in. When the feature is activated, your drone won’t respond if you try to take off in a geofenced area. If you fly near a geofenced area, the drone will pause at the boundary and won’t continue the flight into the restricted zone.

An aerial view of houses and empty fields with a circle around one large building representing a geofence.

Geofences can be used to restrict flight in certain areas. For example, if the building above (circled in red) has a geofence in place, you’d be able to fly in the field nearby, but if you tried to fly over the building, your drone would stop at the edge of the geofence.

 

But geofences weren’t intended to become the be-all, end-all of no-fly zone designations. They were coded into machines first by manufacturers as a stopgap feature to hopefully prevent reckless flight into restricted areas. For example, drone manufacturers could use geofencing to prohibit drones from flying near prisons, airports, nuclear power plants, military bases or other obvious no-fly zones.

The problem is, beyond the obvious places, the rules around when to use geofencing are hazy. Rules vary widely, for example, on drones in state parks. Geofences are constantly changing too, as the FAA consistently updates its restrictions to account for sporting events, wildfires, or wherever the president is at a given moment.

There has been some noise about creating a more interconnected no-fly zone. AirMap, which launched last year, is hoping to become an automated, constantly up-to-date mission control for all drones. NASA is also developing a drone traffic management system, which will help drone operators avoid crashes and keep track of the air up there.

But as of now, there is no universally governed geofencing system. Each manufacturer creates its own invisible borders. This means that with the exception of obvious restricted sites, one drone’s no-fly zone may be another drone’s playground.

Giving pilots control

Geofences are seen by some to be unnecessarily restrictive — especially by experienced hobby and commercial pilots. Many pilots get licensed by the FAA and comply with the rules, yet still see their drones unexpectedly stop working when they need it to complete, say, an aerial photography job they were hired and authorized to perform.

Instead of grounding drones by default, one solution some manufactures take is to send the pilot an alert when they are flying in or near a restricted area. The pilot has to acknowledge the warning message, but they also have the option to override the restriction and keep flying.

This strategy of giving pilots more autonomy is becoming a common feature for many drones. In addition to sending alerts, manufacturers are experimenting with other ways to verify pilot identities and verify permissions. For example, in addition to receiving an alert, you might be asked to enter a credit card number.

This gives pilots the ability to complete legitimate, authorized flights, and if something does happen that requires investigation, the pilot can be identified and show that they had the appropriate permission to conduct the flight.

The bottom line

While there’s still a debate whether drone manufacturers, drone operators, or the government should be responsible for setting boundaries, for now, it’s largely the drone pilot’s responsibility to know whether or not the chosen airspace is legal for flight. But it’s important to remember that the rules in some instances are hazy and fluid, and like many things in life, it’s good to err on the side of caution. Do your homework and check the FAA’s airspace restrictions before you fly.