Tracking rogue drones with DJI Aeroscope – Howtoshtab – how to, lifehacks, tips and tricks

“The summer of dangerous encounters between planes and threats controlled from the ground has seen one more.” By now you may have heard stories of drones flying where they shouldn’t. “You don’t want to try to do that.” Like near an airport or over a crowded stadium or even above a wildfire. Drones are growing in popularity — but to some people, they’re also an uncontrollable nuisance.

This is supposed to change that. This is Aeroscope. It’s Chinese drone maker DJI’s new solution for detecting rogue drones. It looks like your standard Pelican Case, but packed inside this box are antennas, processors, a “CrystalSky” display, and specialized software that lets you see and identify drones flying overhead — provided they’re within a few miles. And this is just running Google Maps, so you’re layering your own information on top of Google? Yes, that’s right. If you click in on a drone you’ll actually see the historical information of where it’s been flying nearby you. So, for example, if we’re at a sensitive facility, and I see a drone just flying circles out in the background, that’s not a problem, but if I see something flying straight towards me at a high speed, that’s something I will want to investigate.

DJI is aiming this new product at public safety officials. Think airports, prisons, railways, and disaster sites — basically places where drones flying overhead could be problematic. So, we went and talked to one of these officials. Nick Martino is an operations specialist at the Ventura County Department of Airports, where he and his team have been beta testing an Aeroscope prototype since early October. First one was great. It just had some glitches. The second one, a lot more stable. And the range is a little better. Which is great because we can really protect that 5-mile airspace bubble. Martino also flies drones himself. He uses them for tower inspections and to monitor wildlife at Camarillo Airport. It’s still restricted airspace, but in this case, the airport ops team has gotten drone approval from the FAA. So when he’s not flying drones, he’s looking out for them. I joined him on one of his patrols around the airport, with the Aeroscope box, which he calls “the gizmos.” [control tower dialogue] How many alien life-forms have you spotted out here with this thing? Just two.

They were friendly? Yeah. I think there’s a bigger concern that we’re colluding with Russia right now. So, that’s the most common thing. Understandable. [Laughs] [Beeping] We spotted a drone! We do. We have a drone. Where is this guy? So, if you zoom out. We should see an icon, and we’ll wait for it to get a bearing, get a lock. There he is. So we have an active drone. I do see a Gmail, and that’s how you contact that person. Correct. But you’re relying on someone seeing that email. Correct. We got a hit. We have an Inspire, at what looks like Port Hueneme. So now what we can do, is we can essentially send them a friendly email, introducing ourselves and the airport and hopefully engage. What does the email usually say? A friendly, “The airport doesn’t approve or deny any UAS operations, but here’s the proper method to getting approval to fly in the restricted airspace.” Aeroscope works by picking up the communication that’s happening between the drone and the drone controller. It decodes the information in the signal, and then it displays the telemetry and drone data on the Aeroscope screen. The drone’s flight path only appears on the map when the drone is powered on or in the air.

Once the drone is powered off, it goes away on the map. And Aeroscope only tracks DJI drones — at least for now. But the history of the flight is still stored on the box, and you can still see a pilot’s email. Do you think this makes DJI customers nervous? I think the vast majority of users want to operate safely and responsibly. What happens if a law enforcement agency sees a drone flying in restricted airspace, finds the operator? Can they ticket them at that point? What happens to the drone operator? Honestly, it will depend on the situation and the local rules and regulations. At minimum, it starts a conversation or an investigation path, so that if there is some sort of penalty that needs to be put in place, law enforcement and regulators have that tool at their disposal. Perry also pointed out that unless a drone has been registered, you won’t see the pilot’s email on the box. And he emphasized that DJI’s solution is a localized one, not a networked one — unlike, say, our cellphone networks.

So it’s probably worth taking a quick step back and looking at why this drone detection tech has to exist in the first place. The TL;DR version is that innovation has outpaced regulation. Drones are growing in popularity. Almost 3 million personal and commercial drones are expected to be produced in 2017, according to a report from research firm Gartner, which is nearly 40 percent more than in 2016. But despite their growth, the rules around drones are still super confusing. Don’t fly above 400 feet, don’t fly close to airports, don’t fly over people, beyond visual line of sight or fly at night. So those are some of the key fundamental ideas. In terms of airspace, there’s no question: the FAA controls that space. But what you actually do on particular property, that can be interpreted to be a local decision.

Where things start getting more complicated is when you start flying in areas with restricted airspace. Which is why dozens of companies and agencies have been testing drone detection systems. Including the FAA itself. A couple years ago, the FAA started partnering with agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and technology providers like CACI, to test drone detection at airports. Right now we kind of have the Wild West situation where everybody does whatever they want and there’s no real enforcement mechanism. The biggest danger, I think, is that you’ll end up with a situation where, during this phase in which we don’t have quite the right level of regulations or rules or systems and infrastructure, the danger is that something bad happens during this period of time that then sours the public’s opinion of drones in general. That’s Grant Jordan. He’s the CEO of SkySafe, a San Diego-based, drone control startup, that’s working with the military to keep unwanted drones away.

But SkySafe doesn’t just track drones. It also intercepts them. And Jordan says that’s what the real regulatory battle could be about: hacking drones to take them down, when they truly are dangerous. Okay, so taking down drones might look cool, but there is a catch: intercepting drones, for the most part, is illegal — even if it’s with a roll of toilet paper. According to the FAA, “Certain drone detection and mitigation capabilities are restricted by Title 18 USC and other applicable U.S. federal laws. Most federal agencies, as well as state and local entities and private parties, are subject to these laws. Some federal agencies have specific legal authority exempting them from these laws.” But yeah, for the most part, illegal. And so one of the things is if this is a commercial UAS and it’s registered commercially and you’re intercepting a registered drone, are you intercepting a registered aircraft? And that’s a big question right now in the industry, and I think that coordination between the local government and federal government will continue and we’ll get a clearer picture on that. Pretty soon I hope. Is that technology that your team is working on? How to remotely control a drone? From our perspective, we think that any technology that develops in that space is going to need to answer some very fundamental questions.

One is about the legal issue, and, more importantly, also about a safety issue. So a lot of the implementations that I am thinking around, taking control of a drone. We believe whether it’s a forced landing or even causing a crash, it causes a significant safety concern. So, whatever solution is developed would have to address those two questions. What does “safety” really mean, when it comes to drones? The answer probably lies somewhere between sending a friendly email to a drone operator, and shooting one down from the sky yourself. Most drone makers — and even some safety officials like Nick Martino — will say that the bad eggs are few and far between; that most pilots want to fly responsibly, and just need a little more education. There’s no doubt that the industry is stuck in somewhat of a holding pattern while it waits for important policy decisions to be made.

In the meantime, companies like DJI are using drone detection to learn more about how people are using drones — and that information might be the most valuable part of all of this..

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