Illicit drone flights have caused no shortage of problems, with the issue largely stemming from a combination of rapid technological advances in the field and a failure on the part of regulators to keep pace. In accordance with the belief that “the person who broke it should fix it,” problems that arise from technology require technology-based solutions.
DJI, the drone-manufacturing powerhouse that controls over half the Chinese market, has published a series of posts on its website outlining its concerns and thoughts on the matter. It’s unclear whether any of the various local governments that have issued drone-related regulations and notices consulted DJI beforehand. What is clear is that manufacturers, governments, and the military are beginning to agree on the significance of the problem of illicit black flights, and that they are starting to come to a consensus about how to handle the issue.
In an article titled “Some Thoughts on Domestic Drone Safety Technology,” DJI argued that innovations in geofencing technology, early warning and monitoring systems, and electronic jamming could give China more powerful and accurate tools for controlling drones. Geofencing makes use of a drone’s GPS chip, checking the drone’s location against a database of restricted airspaces. It automatically prevents drones from being used in such locations, while not interfering with their use in areas where they can be safely flown. By hard coding the location of governmental buildings, military bases, airports, nuclear power stations, and dams into a list of restricted airspaces, manufacturers can effectively control where drones can fly.
DJI claims that drone regulation should draw on the lessons learned from regulating ground vehicles and handheld radios. Any regulatory system should involve keeping the relevant records, training registrations, and flight plans on file. It should be clear which organization is in charge of hearing disputes and what the limits of its authority are. Drones should only be allowed to fly after receiving proper authorization, and after the flight, operators must submit a report including the drone’s actual flight path and whether anything out of the ordinary occurred.
Furthermore, the company continues, an annual review system should be implemented to ensure a given drone’s hardware has not been compromised and that it can still be flown safely. This annual assessment should also include updating drone operator records, with those who broke or violated regulations being subject to loss of license. Mandatory insurance requirements should also be instituted to cover any injuries or property damage incurred while the drone is in flight.
Currently, according to a notice from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, local government bodies responsible for overseeing the civil aviation industry are required to notify all civilian drone manufacturers under their jurisdiction that they must submit company and product information to the government, and to monitor these companies to ensure their compliance. They must also familiarize themselves with the overall state of the drone industry.
In addition, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) issued a document requiring civilian drone manufacturers and owners to open an account with them that requires real-name registration for all drones with a maximum takeoff weight of 250 grams or more. The CAAC also approved its first batch of data on restricted airspaces over civilian airfields. As the steady stream of new regulations continues, experts believe that a drone supervision system will gradually start to take shape.
In the past, there were reports of companies advertising their drones as being able to fly into restricted airspace. Given the dangers involved in such activity, low-altitude radar must be installed to quickly identify such threats, and it should be used in conjunction with electronic jamming equipment to force any errant drones from the sky. If necessary, military equipment can be used to shoot them down.
After Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport in eastern China experienced drone-related disruptions early this year, the authorities installed electronic jamming equipment capable of grounding all drones within 15 kilometers. According to media reports, in March, the Qingdao-based company Digitech announced China’s first complete civil anti-drone system, combining monitoring and warning systems, electromagnetic interference and drone capture capabilities, and the ability to trace a drone to its source. According to the company’s own description, the device was used as part of the security measures during the 2017 New Year’s celebrations on the Bund in Shanghai, where it kept more than 10 drones out of the sky, reducing security risks.
Drone safety is a recent issue, one that has proven difficult to solve. The rising number of drone-related incidents in China has given the matter an unprecedented level of importance, with new regulations released all the time in an attempt to strengthen controls on their use. However, we need to be careful about adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to regulations on drone flights and real-name registration systems.
While registration requirements can have an impact in the short term, if we fail to adapt to the realities of the current drone market, or to confront suspicions of lax government oversight, then it will be difficult to achieve real results in the long term. This, in turn, will influence the production and use of drones in daily life, as well as research and development in the field, and will ultimately have a negative impact on the drone market as a whole.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A young man practices flying a drone near Shangjie Airport in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Sept. 19, 2015. Wen Jun/VCG)