At left, a map showing Orano's nuclear waste processing plant at la Hague; at right, the same view in France's Géoportail database, showing precisely the restricted airspace for drone flights with DGAC data. The Altitude Angel and AirMap databases show the restricted airspace, but DJI's GEO does not, although an imminent update will. Image: Orano/Géoportail

DJI updates GEO 2.0 geofencing database for Europe, and the mystery of the missing nuclear plant

Equipment & systems Policy • regulations • airspace Security • law enforcement • countermeasures

Dà-Jiāng Innovations (DJI), the Chinese company which is the worldwide market leader for c-drones, announced on February 12 that the firm would replace AirMap with Altitude Angel as the provider of cartographic data for Europe in the 2.0 version of its “geofencing” Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) system. The change follows the replacement of AirMap with PrecisionHawk for US cartographic data last October.

In a press release, DJI said:

GEO 2.0 creates detailed three-dimensional “bow tie” safety zones surrounding runway flight paths and uses complex polygon shapes around other sensitive facilities, rather than just simple circles used in earlier geofencing versions. This applies in the 13 countries covered by DJI’s original GEO system, as well as 19 new countries that did not previously have advanced geofencing. The new system better reflects the actual safety risk posed in those areas and is more flexbile in lower-risk areas, for example by permitting authorized users to conduct drone activities in locations parallel to runways.

Geofencing, first introduced by DJI as No Fly Zones in 2013 and refined with the GEO database in 2016, is designed to mitigate the risks of the so-called “3Cs” drone pilots: clueless, careless and criminal. Many remote pilots, both hobbyist and professional, do not come from an aviation background, and do not study aeronautical charts or bother to check NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) or TFRs (Temporary Flight Restriction). Cartographic data is sourced from providers, then virtual “fences” are configured by DJI for flight restriction zones, typically over and near sensitive sites such as airports, prisons, nuclear plants, and military bases, and are loaded into the firmware of DJI’s c-drones and flight control software via regular software updates. Although it is possible to defeat geofencing, it is nontrivial. A drone encountering a geofenced area will land or return to its takeoff point; a drone within a geofenced area will not take off. DJI has a procedure for commercial drone operators to receive authorization to temporarily defeat geofencing via an unlocking code; the company claims 30-minute turnaround time for such requests. France’s Azur Drones has developed a variant of geofencing called “geocaging”, which allows an autonomous security drone to fly only within the perimeter of a designated site; their Skeyetech solution is the first in Europe to be approved for autonomous BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) flight by the French Civil Aviation Authority, Direction générale de l’aviation civile (DGAC).

Incursions of drones into the restricted airspace of airports and their takeoff and landing approaches has become a serious problem in recent years, with many pilots reporting drone sightings in positions and altitudes where no drones should be flying. In late December, repeated flights of a drone or drones for 33 hours over the runway of London Gatwick Airport resulted in hundreds of cancelled flights, disrupting the voyages of over 130,000 passengers. On January 22, a drone spotted at 3600 feet altitude near Newark Liberty Airport, New Jersey, resulted in the airport’s temporary closure. In both incidents, the pilots or drones were not found.

Unmanned air traffic management (UTM or U-space) is a key enabler of drone and air taxi services planned for urban environments in the years to come. The projected volume of unmanned and manned aircraft sharing airspace has the industry and regulators worldwide studying ways to automate the integration of drones into national airspace systems. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rolled out its LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, pronounced “lance”) system last year, partnering with 14 UAS (Unmanned aerial system) service suppliers (USS) including Airmap, Airbus, Altitude Angel, DJI, Kittyhawk, Google’s Project Wing, Thales Group, and Belgium’s Unifly. The LAANC system has dramatically shortened wait times for remote pilots to obtain authorization for flights in or near restricted zones.

In a telephone interview, Richard Parker, founder and CEO of Altitude Angel, said:

We provide DJI with a single interface, a one-stop shop for the complex airspace in 32 European countries. We combine aeronautical data from multiple sources, starting with official data from each country, augmented with other sources for local restrictions — justice ministries for prisons, parks departments, and so on. Crucially, we create structured data from Eurocontrol’s NOTAM texts, which typically are written for humans, so TFRs can be included in our map data. We are committed to aviation safety, and the development of BVLOS flight will only be possible with quality data from official sources.

The C-Drone Review spoke with DJI representatives, who indicated that AirMap’s cartographic quality was not called into question, but that their differences had more to do with AirMap’s business model, and imposing unwarranted burdens on safe and responsible drone pilots.

Reached for comment, Ben Marcus, chairman and co-founder of AirMap, declined to discuss the nature of the disagreements with DJI, citing an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). In a followup statement, he said:

Three and a half years ago, AirMap and DJI partnered because both companies are innovative and have a common mission in extending the benefits that drones deliver to society. In this way, we recognize DJI as a partner and appreciate their contributions to the industry. AirMap supports a community of over 1,800 developers who have access to AirMap APIs for their applications. We’re integrated with drones by Matternet, senseFly, 3DR, Intel, Kespry, and many more; AirMap is pre-integrated into QGroundControl, the leading open source ground control station software, which powers software for drones like Yuneec. More than 250,000 people have downloaded our application, which any operator can use to fly a DJI drone with the AirMap Platform.

We know that drone operators care a lot about making sure that their operations are in full compliance with airspace regulation for drones as prescribed by Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs) around the world. That’s why AirMap goes straight to the source, with very significant investments and detailed regulatory analysis to implement evolving airspace rulesets prescribed by CAAs. […]

At the end of the day, AirMap isn’t a data provider, we’re a UTM provider. In practice, that means being an open, drone-agnostic provider of services on behalf of authorities for consumption by enterprises that want to stand up compliant drone operations all over the world. That includes services like registration, situational awareness, authorization, deconfliction, etc., all of which are available to any drone manufacturer through AirMap’s Open Developer Platform of APIs and SDKs, and to any DJI operator through the AirMap for Drones mobile application on iOS and Android.

Of course, it’s always tough to lose a customer. But DJI’s position isn’t a setback for AirMap. Nothing has changed in AirMap’s ability to service our customers, no matter where in the world they are or what drone they want to fly.

The mystery of the missing nuclear plant

On January 26, environmental activist group Greenpeace France flew two c-drones -— one of which ignited and dropped a distress flare canister —- over the world’s largest nuclear fuel processing facility at La Hague on the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy. In a statement that day, they said:

Greenpeace has demonstrated, once again, that French nuclear facilities are not sufficiently protected against the risks of external attack. But what is particularly shocking is that this drone was able to ignite distress flares on the roof of the pool, in other words the weakest point of a building containing the largest amount of radioactive material in the world.

Inspection of Greenpeace’s video seems to show a DJI S1000 octocopter. Was DJI’s geofencing not working correctly, or had it been defeated? Inspection of DJI’s GEO database showed that the immense site, which employs over 3000 workers, is not properly marked as a Restricted Zone, but rather an Enhanced Warning Zone, only visible if a box is checked. This contradicts France’s National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information (IGN) online Géoportail map, which was updated in April 2017, again a year later, then again last November with an overlay of DGAC data showing airspace restrictions for recreational drones. It also contradicts Altitude Angel’s online map, which shows an impressive level of detail such as power towers (electricity pylons) adjacent to the site. However, strangely, it also contradicts AirMap’s data, the source for DJI GEO until today, as confirmed by Ben Marcus:

In France, AirMap has implemented the DGAC rulesets and mission scenarios in its platform, and that data is available through the AirMap applications and Software Development Kit (SDK) used by drone application developers and manufacturers. For example, in Normandy, AirMap provides the authoritative data for the no-fly zone and advisories for the nuclear retreatment facilities site in La Hague and the nuclear plant at Flamanville.

The C-Drone Review contacted Orano (ex-Areva), operator of the nuclear facility at La Hague, who confirmed the three-kilometer no-fly zone surrounding the plant from sea level up to 3,900 feet (1200 meters) and referred us to the Legifrance official legal database, in particular the law dated March 6, 2012 (updating the 2002 version) specifically referring to the site at La Hague. The penalties for infringing its restricted airspace are steep: up to 18 months in prison and a €60,000 ($68,000) fine.

So how did a site which may store as much as 100kg (220 lb) of plutonium fall through the cracks in DJI’s GEO? AirMap and Altitude Angel both told us they provide high quality cartographic data, but DJI subsequently applies “business logic” to it. DJI’s spokespeople reacted quickly when this omission was pointed out to them, indicating that the site at La Hague will indeed be geofenced when GEO 2.0 is pushed out in Europe later this month. DJI also reminded us that its geofencing is an advisory service for drone pilots, not an enforcement mechanism, a view clearly indicated on DJI’s FlySafe portal:

As a DJI pilot, you are solely responsible for ensuring your flights are conducted safely and in accordance with all local laws and regulations.

It is clear that UTM will only be possible with precise and updated airspace data. It is also clear that any such data destined for autonomous flight will require very careful quality control.