Drones, defined simply as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have been around from as early as 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers, in a public demonstration, launched the first unpiloted flight of their new invention, the hot air balloon.
Military use of drones can be traced all the way back to 1849, when Austrian armed forces attacked Venice with bombs carried by balloons, in what was the world’s first air raid. Despite the staggering scientific, economic and social advancements that have taken place since then, drones would remain a primarily military technology for over 150 years.
It was only in the mid 2000s that the civilian and commercial markets for drones as we know them today began to emerge. For the everyday man, the allure lay in recreational flying, exploration, and new possibilities in photography and videography.
For businesses, drones presented an incredible opportunity to greatly lower delivery times and costs, and extend their reach to previously unserviceable areas.
As you would expect, the popularity of drones quickly grew — and with that growth came new concerns. Could the average layman be trusted to pilot drones responsibly? How would flying through controlled airspaces — sensitive or restricted areas — be handled? What about drone and pilot identification? Would drones become a nuisance in residential zones? Could anything be done to prevent mid-air collisions between drones? There was one solution, either directly or indirectly, to all these concerns and more: geofencing.
What is geofencing?
Without getting into the technicalities of it, geofences are virtual fences or perimeters that are placed around real-world physical locations. They can trigger various actions whenever an object passes through them. Geofencing is simply the application of these geofences.
You’re already familiar with geofences, whether you know it or not. Have you ever had a car that unlocks its doors automatically as you approach it with the key in your pocket? That’s geofencing!
The car is able to detect when the key enters a specified perimeter (the geofence), and the action that’s triggered is the unlocking of its doors. It’s the same story with lights and air conditioners that switch on as you enter the room, entrance gates that open as your car approaches, and many other common applications.
Within the context of drones, geofencing is nothing but the use of geofences to trigger warnings and restrictions on drones that are nearing or passing through sensitive areas such as residential zones, airports, military installations, prisons, etc. Geofencing can be used to keep drones both out of restricted areas as well as within a specified boundary.
How does geofencing work?
Geofencing, in the case of drones, works by constantly communicating with the drone’s software through positioning technologies. There’s a commonly held belief that drone geofencing works exclusively with GPS systems, but this is not true; any location technology, such as WiFi, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), cellular data, bluetooth beacons, etc. can be used to enable geofencing. In fact, most of these signals provide superior battery efficiency when compared to GPS.
Any drones in the vicinity of the geofence will continuously communicate their positions to the geofencing application. The app keeps track of every device’s location and triggers a specified action each time a drone penetrates a geofence.
You’ll often find that there are two geofences around certain controlled airspaces. When the first is breached, the triggered action will usually be to send a warning message to the drone pilot, giving them the opportunity to turn away without further trouble.
If the pilot ignores the warning and proceeds to breach the second geofence, it typically results in the drone being brought down to the ground automatically, outside the control of the pilot.
Most drones available in the commercial market come with inbuilt geofencing software. These systems are generally integrated with a digital airspace map that defines controlled and restricted zones for drones.
It’s possible to legally fly a drone through some controlled airspaces on the condition that approval is granted by the concerned authority. Expect the approval process to involve gathering information about the drone’s identification/serial number, the pilot’s identity and their reason for flying the drone through the sensitive airspace.
If authorization is granted, then the drone may fly inside the controlled airspace, as long as it adheres to whatever the stipulated limitations may be — often altitude and boundary restrictions.
Perhaps the most compelling benefit of geofencing is that it can be implemented practically anywhere at any time by anyone, and can limit drone activity without the need for any physical barriers, which are quite easy for drones to circumvent.
This all sounds pretty good so far, so you might be wondering what the debate about geofencing is. Well, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies; there are some valid arguments to be made against geofencing. Let’s break down the pros and cons –
The pros of drone geofencing
We’ve already touched upon some strong points in favor of geocoding earlier in this piece, but let’s add, reiterate and expand.
The primary objective of geofencing is to maintain the safety of any given airspace in question. There have been numerous instances of unauthorized drones entering sensitive airspaces, from airports to military installations and even the White House. Such breaches are clearly of serious concern, and geofencing can keep most drones at bay in these and more scenarios.
Another way in which geofencing can enhance airspace safety is by preventing mid-air collisions between drones. Geofencing can be used in conjunction with blockchain technology to ensure that each drone has its own path through an airspace, which cannot be intruded upon by any other drones.
This concept can be extended to implement air corridors for emergency uses only, enabling quick and safe paths for firefighter drones, medical drones and the like. Alternatively, it could ensure the same security to an e-commerce or retail store’s delivery drones.
Privacy in sensitive areas is also a concern with the proliferation of commercial drones. Again, geofencing finds a variety of applications in this use case. For one, it can be used to prevent drones from flying over schools — an undesirable event for obvious reasons.
Geofencing can completely disable or limit the flying of drones through residential areas to specific hours of the day. After all, drones can be noisy, unsafe and intrusive. Skyscrapers and other tall buildings can also protect themselves from drone crashes by erecting geofences.
Then there’s the matter of keeping prying eyes away from places like military bases, government or corporate research facilities, government offices, etc.
Geofencing can even be used to cut off drone access to certain parts of the sky during times when birds are expected to migrate, ensuring their safe and uninterrupted passage on the seasonal journey.
This is far from an exhaustive list of privacy applications for geofencing — there are vast possibilities.
We’ve already seen how drones with geofencing capabilities require authorization to enter controlled airspaces, which is tied to both the drone’s and the pilot’s identities, often through a registered account.
This traceability encourages the pilot to operate the drone responsibly, as they do not have the shield of anonymity in these restricted areas.
It’s also worth noting that although unregistered drones can still fly freely in unrestricted airspace, the requirements to legally fly in controlled airspaces do have some tangible effect on driving more drone registrations.
And more registered drones is always a good thing, as registration serves as the first filter against those with malicious intent. This is yet another way in which geofencing adds a layer of security to the operation of drones.
Inhibition of illegal activity
In the early days of commercially available drones, they were widely used by criminal elements for illicit activities like smuggling drugs across borders and transporting contraband items to and from prisons.
With the advent of geofencing, the use of drones for these kinds of activities was quickly and significantly lowered — although not entirely eliminated. Why? That’s down to one of the weaknesses of geofencing. Let’s get into it.
The cons of drone geofencing
Though the pros of geofencing are undeniable, there is a portion of the drone pilot community that simply cannot abide by the cons that come with it.
Requires permission to function
There’s a catch to geofencing — and it’s a pretty big one. It requires location permission from the drone to receive real-time location updates and detect when the drone passes a geofence.
While most publicly available drones come with geofencing capabilities — and therefore grant location permission by default — not all do.
Even in a hypothetical situation where every commercially sold drone has geofencing enabled as a rule, those who really want to can build their own drones without the restrictive technology — it’s not an overly complicated task. Essentially, geofencing doesn’t stop those bad actors who are truly determined to use drones for their nefarious purposes.
Can be hacked
In a similar vein, even those drones that do have geofencing features enabled can be hacked to overcome its restrictions. There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved. For example, GPS spoofing, which involves the falsification of location data, can confuse the geofencing software into believing that the drone is somewhere it’s actually not.
There has been at least one instance in the past where a major drone manufacturer has released a product with buggy code in its software, which could be — and was — manipulated to render its geofencing feature obsolete.
There’s even a company in Russia that specializes in hacking and modifying specific manufacturers’ drones to eliminate the limitations imposed by geofencing.
Adds friction to time-bound operations
Be it for commercial use cases, emergency services or law enforcement, drones are now being used in a wide variety of time-sensitive applications — even delivery of organs for transplantations. As you might imagine, every second that passes could have monumental consequences in these kinds of situations.
For such applications, time spent requesting and waiting for approvals is a luxury that cannot be afforded (in the case of commercial applications, quite literally).
It’s fair to say that at least in the cases of law enforcement and emergency services, their drones should have automatic authorization to enter most restricted airspaces. However, in the real world, failures, glitches, hacks and other unexpected events do occur; is that a justifiable risk?
Restricts pilot autonomy
One of the most liberating ideas about owning a drone is the freedom to just take flight and explore your surroundings or pull off a few neat maneuvers whenever you feel the urge to do so. But if your drone has geofencing enabled, it’s not going to be as simple as that.
Geofencing requires that you always plan your drone’s flight paths in advance, which takes away much of the excitement that would otherwise be brought about by spur-of-the-moment exploration and random finds.
This imposition is a sour point for many drone enthusiasts, as even the responsible ones feel like they’re having their enjoyment unfairly curtailed. It becomes an even more pronounced problem when the areas they live in happen to be restricted airspaces, meaning that these drone owners sometimes can’t even fly their devices within their own homes.
Although most people are likely of the view that geofencing for drones is an inconvenient but necessary safety and privacy measure, there are certainly those who stand on either extreme of the debate. This has proved to be quite a contentious and polarizing topic in the drone community.
Some drone manufacturers are filling in what they see as a gap in the market, offering drones that do not incorporate any geofencing software and marketing this as their main selling point.
Either way, it’s clear to see that we’re not yet fully comfortable with geofencing for drones as it stands today. Where will we land on this matter in the future? We’re not sure yet, but it’ll definitely be interesting to see!
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