Drone software update. License or be grounded

23-08-2017 | By Paul Whytock

Irresponsible droners could be forced to license their machines or be grounded by software that makes their drone inoperable.

Electroblog in the past has written about the real danger drones represent when flown in commercial airline flight space, not to mention their illegal use for delivering drugs to prisons or flying over the backs of houses to see which ones are ‘burglary-ripe.’

Regarding the danger to aircraft, America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is certainly taking the situation very seriously and there is now a legal precedence in that country following the imprisonment of a droner on a charge of reckless endangerment. In addition to that the FAA has extended its no-fly zone around the Washington D.C. area which means no one within a 30-mile radius of the Ronald-Reagan Washington National Airport can fly a drone. After all, a drone sucked into an aircraft engine at take-off or landing altitude could prove catastrophic.

And here in London there were over 70 near misses last year to aircraft by drone-numpties flying their toys near Heathrow Airport. So this column has in the past called for droners to be subject to licensing, height and territorial limitations? It’s a no brainer when it comes to reigning in the drone-numpties.

As expected the UK Government has started to take the problem seriously but in its typical way is only trundling slowly toward creating legislation that will make licensing mandatory.


Software Update

But news this week about a drone software update that will ground drones if not implemented got me thinking. Could such a strategy force droners to license their machines? Simply put, when a drone is purchased the owner then has to go online to download software to make their machine work. The only way that software is provided to the owner is if they go through a licensing procedure. When the license is approved they are issued with a code that will allow them access to the operational software download. Maybe height and range limitations could be factored into the software as well?

The story that got me thinking along these lines concerns DJI Spark drones. They will not fly after 1 September unless droners apply a mandatory software update to their machines. Now this particular update is to fix some flight control problems which is certainly necessary to ensure safe use of the drone.

But it would not be a great leap further forward to utilize this software update strategy to oblige new drone owners to apply for a license before becoming operational. And of course once licensed they become accountable if they contravene drone flying law or their machine is caught or involved in a dangerous or criminal situation.


Droner Uproar

Needless to say the DJI software update-or-you-are- grounded scenario has caused uproar with a lot of droners and the usual moaning about the infringement of rights. However, there are a lot of law-abiding and responsible droners out there who would like to see the drone-numpties called to account. Not to mention thousands of airline passengers who are put in real danger by them.

Perhaps mandatory software grounded-or-be-grounded software could be the way forwarded on drone control although implementing such a scheme might prove an administrative and logistical nightmare. Obviously the DMA (Drone manufacturers Alliance) would have to be involved and sanction the idea if it was to make the effort to encourage the drone manufacturing companies to sign up to the idea. Then there would be the actual licensing authorities who would need to get involved which could in itself create considerable amounts of red tape to entangle the project. Add to all that a reluctance on some drone owners to play by the rules and to start using jail-breaking software to circumvent the licensing endeavour and the whole thing could prove unwieldy.

Alternatively, rather than going for a mandatory drone license software update perhaps the simpler manufacturing solution would be for drone makers to build in altimeter-related software controls that limit the height capability of a drone to 100 feet, although I expect that idea or the licensing software alternative would still need legal enforcement for it to be universally adopted.


By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is Technology Correspondent for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over thirty years. Prior to entering journalism, he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.