The world's most popular drone maker has a problem. Inevitably, when consumer drones are in the news for a bad reason—smuggling drugs, hanging out at the White House, flying over massive crowds of rioting sports fans—it's one of DJI's drones featured prominently as the culprit.
This is, of course, mainly a function of the company selling more consumer drones than anyone else. It's also a function of how easy the Phantom and some of its other models are to fly—many of them are "ready to fly" models you can buy on Amazon and fly 10 minutes after you open the box.
So, Wednesday, DJI announced in an emailed press release that it's trying to crack down on people who use their drones illegally by automatically disabling flights in Washington, DC and across international borders. Both of those restrictions are specific reactions to the White House flight and a drug-smuggling incident along the US-Mexican border reported in Tijuana last week.
It's a new firmware update that changes the software inside the Phantom 2 line of drones so that it won't take off in certain areas (which are detected by the drone's internal GPS). It is already illegal to fly a drone in Washington, DC and the surrounding area.
The problem is, no one is obligated to actually download the software—the quadcopters work perfectly fine without the firmware updates, and, by downloading a new update, pilots would actually be restricting what their drones can do.
Presumably, new Phantom drones will be preloaded with the firmware, however, which also restricts flights near 10,000 airports.
"We unequivocally do not endorse the illegal or irresponsible use of unmanned aerial systems, which is why we have built in tools to help DJI pilots fly safely—particularly restricting flight near airports and providing the ability to cap height and distance limits in accordance with local laws," DJI spokesperson Michael Perry told Motherboard after an incident earlier this week in which a government employee (who was reportedly drinking at the time) flew a Phantom over the White House, causing a bit of a media freakout.
The company has faced an uphill battle trying to assure regulators and Congress that these things are worth not only allowing in American skies, but that they could save or stimulate entire industries.
The problem is, every time you promote the positive uses of drones—pipeline monitoring, crop surveying, aerial photography, news gathering—there's an incident like this that detractors can point to. With the growing popularity of drones (one store in New York City alone said it was selling 200 Phantoms a day—and that was before a Christmas boom in sales), more and more pilots who have no idea what they're doing are taking them for a spin.
"I think what we're seeing is a transition between hobby and mainstream," Eric Cheng, DJI's director of aerial photography, told me. "We're working as hard as we can [to make sure people fly them safely]. It's an ongoing issue to help educate first-time buyers. It's a dialogue between us and the customers and policy makers. We've been proactive in setting up infrastructure in the Phantom line to help people fly them as safely as possible."
It's a laudable goal, and restricting flights with GPS is certainly a first step. The question is: Can DJI stay ahead of clueless pilots, and can it continue to weaken its products' capabilities while keeping it useful enough to be worth buying?