Drone Pilots Are Buying Russian Software to Hack Their Way Past DJI's No Fly Zones
It's an arms race.
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Should drone owners be able to fly their drones wherever and however they want to? This is the question increasingly asked by the consumer drone community as drone giant DJI tightens flying restrictions on its customers.
The debate is one with property rights at its core. And in the never-ending cat and mouse game of DJI drone pilots trying to escape constraints like geofences in the vicinity of airports—no fly zones implemented by over-the-air updates straight to the drone's GPS —some pilots are now paying hundreds of dollars to evade DJI's watch. Enter Coptersafe, a drone modification business that jailbreaks drones.
"It is very good that DJI makes a lot of effort about safety," a Coptersafe spokesperson told Motherboard, "but I think that limitations should be set according to local laws."
Coptersafe.com, a small, online business based out of Russia, sells drone modifications—in both hardware and software form—for a range of DJI's products. Physical modification circuits, like this one for the popular Phantom 4 drone, allow pilots to trick their drone's GPS software into permitting flights inside DJI's no fly zones. Other mods are downloaded over the internet to a user's drone, like this software mod for DJI's Mavic Pro, which also permits no fly zone flying. Coptersafe also sells mods that claim to unshackle DJI's drones from altitude restrictions and speed limits.
"In a world where code is law, those who can change the code stand to make a pretty penny,"
While pilots can officially request special exemptions from DJI's geofences, or even turn off GPS functionality altogether with some of DJI's drones, the one-stop shop provided by Coptersafe allows pilots to jailbreak their drones without losing features GPS software provides, like Return to Home.
The mods also allow for pilots to operate in absolute no fly zones, areas that even opting out of DJI's GEO geofencing software would restrict—like directly over a runway.
"In a world where code is law, those who can change the code stand to make a pretty penny," pointed out one drone pilot on a drone-focused Facebook group.
The Coptersafe spokesperson spoke highly of DJI, and told me that geofencing is very important, but said he believes DJI's restrictions aren't conforming with local law. He said that the idea for Coptersafe was created because his aerial video company faced problems filming because of DJI's geofences, despite being authorized to fly by local administrations.
For many, this jailbreaking is the logical next step in what some consumers see as an infringement of property rights, and Coptersafe is already causing a stir in online drone forums, where DJI pilots are right now attempting to crowdsource cash to test the legitimacy of Coptersafe's wares.
Drone hacker and industry commentator Kevin Finisterre told Motherboard that the website and its products are very real, though. He's even ordered from there himself.
"I can tell you it is 100 percent legit," Finisterre said, before pointing out that there are in fact several other ways to bypass DJI's no fly zones.
"There are much simpler ways to get at it than they are all trying, but I won't be piping up and telling the whole group," he said. "Everyone wants an easy tool they can just click on, or pay for."
The spokesperson for Coptersafe also claimed that their products are real.
"Yes, we get very good feedback from our customers," he said. "They are very happy because our mods allow [them] to use the product they bought from DJI as they want."
It's not hard to defend DJI's geofences and criticize those who wish to fly against them. They aid in preventing terrorist organizations from murdering people; they help stop idiotic drone pilots endangering the lives of hundreds of airline passengers; and they help regulate what's becoming an increasingly congested airspace that poses a threat to everybody underneath it. But the spokesperson's comment, for many pilots, hits the nail on the head: Coptersafe's mods allow pilots to use the product they paid for exactly how they want to use it.
There is always going to be a small minority of drone pilots causing problems, and the debate of ownership and that of what a customer can do with their purchased product is a murky one—for drone pilots don't want to be tarred with the same brush. And drone pilots who do jailbreak their drones aren't necessarily planning to fly dangerously either; there are no fly zones in places where safe flying is possible.
For DJI, increasing pressure to regulate will undoubtedly bring more geofences, as the FAA and governments around the world demand stricter rules for drone flights.
As for Coptersafe's mods, DJI had tough words.
"DJI strongly discourages any attempt to defeat our safety systems, which are advisory and intended to facilitate compliance and safe operations by the average responsible person," Christian Struwe, head of European public policy at DJI, told Motherboard in an email. "Disabling such features may inadvertently disable others and cause unpredictable behaviour."
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