There's not really a delicate way of phrasing this, but there are some questions worth asking: Should ISIS fighters have property rights over the drones they buy? And why is DJI trying to fight terrorism?
The answer to the first question seems easy. If a company has the ability to prevent its products from being used to kill people, it should probably do so. But DJI's "geofences"—which use embedded GPS software to prevent drones from taking off or flying in certain areas—aren't just used to prevent terrorism. They're also used to prevent drones from flying near Tiananmen Square, American airports and prisons, and a 15-mile radius surrounding Washington DC. In other areas, only "authorized users using a DJI verified account" may fly.
From DJI's perspective, it makes sense to do as much as it can to prevent a potentially catastrophic drone-plane crash involving a Phantom or Inspire drone. With geofences, it can also show the Federal Aviation Administration that it's making a good faith effort to require its customers to fly safely and within the agency's regulations.
No other class of vehicle has similar restrictions: If I buy a car, I am free to do donuts on my neighbor's property and then ram it through a shop window. I'd get arrested, but I'd physically be able to do it. DJI's geofences, then, are a fundamentally new restriction on owners' property rights.
"They're trying to defeat a system that was not designed to be undefeatable"
"You can't drive on a military base, even if you own your car," Jason Schultz, a law professor at New York University and coauthor of the book The End of Ownership told me. "But the mechanism of restriction is one that transfers control over the option to violate the restriction to the manufacturer, not the owner. So instead of taking your chances, you never had a chance."
It's not hard to argue in support of geofences—few people want hobbyists flying drones near airports and fewer want ISIS using them at all. But even DJI admits that its geofences are unpopular with a certain subset of the drone community, who see them as artificial locks on the device's functionality.
"I'm sure we've lost business because of this. There are people who have bought drones from other companies because they don't want a system telling them where they can fly," Adam Lisberg, DJI's North America communications director told me.
Lisberg said the geofence system was designed to inform pilots who want to fly according to regulations—indeed, many of the geofenced areas are "warning zones," where pilots can continue to fly after clicking through a notification. Other no-fly zones can be remotely opened with permission from DJI, which has hired a team of people to review exception requests from customers; requests are individually reviewed by humans, not by an algorithm. Lisberg did not have data for how many requests had been approved or rejected, and there are, of course, many legitimate reasons for flying a drone in Syria and Iraq (such as for journalism). Lisberg said "it can take several days to get a response."
"Our goal was not to get into an arms race back and forth with anyone who might conceivably want to misuse our drones."
For those not willing to wait for approval or who have more sinister intentions in mind, DJI's geofence system is relatively easy to circumvent. Users can turn the GPS mode off, and DJI will have no way of knowing where a drone is being operated. Pilots can also avoid updating their Phantoms with firmware that enables geofences, and at least one company is selling mod chips that disable no fly zones altogether.
"Look, you can go online and find ways to defeat geofencing," Lisberg said. "The people who are using our drones for harmful purposes, they're trying to defeat a system that was not designed to be undefeatable. We never designed it to be an enforcement mechanism, it's an advisory system."
"When you read ISIS is setting up its own homemade drone laboratories, our goal was not to get into an arms race back and forth with anyone who might conceivably want to misuse our drones," he added.
DJI is certainly under no obligation to hinder its drone's capabilities—there are many drone companies that have no geofencing capabilities whatsoever. It could very easily allow its drones to fly wherever people want to fly them—ISIS included—and leave the responsibility to those who might misuse them (for example: gun manufacturers, in the vast majority of cases, don't get sued when someone uses a gun to commit murder).
In trying to police some drone activity, the company is opening itself to no-fly-zone creep; it didn't design the geofencing system to fight terrorism, and yet, here we are. Lisberg would not comment on whether the company internally decided to put no fly zones over Syria and Iraq or if it was asked to do so by a government entity.
Now that DJI has started to try to fight terrorism, it's going to be very hard to go back to a more open platform. DJI's intentions might be noble, but it's very easy to imagine the company preventing its drones from, say, being flown near a public protest or over a factory farm at the request of a government or private company. The only thing stopping such overreach is DJI's thus-far unknown commitment to keeping its platform as open as possible.
"We're the biggest drone manufacturer. People associate the profile of Phantom with what a drone is," Lisberg said. "This costs us money, and it costs us money to have people full time to respond to this. But we believe the overwhelming majority of our customers want to fly safely and we think this is a fair compromise between safety, property rights, and the security of public airspace."