You Don't Own What You Bought: Drone Maker Updates Firmware On All Drones To Stop Any Flights In DC

from the well-that's-not-very-nice dept

You may have heard the news recently about how a drunk employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (can’t make this crap up) accidentally flew a DJI Phantom II drone onto White House property, leading to a general collective freakout over the security implications of these personal helicopters. In response to this, President Obama has called for more drone regulations — which may or may not make sense — but it needs to be remembered that the FAA has been refusing to actually release any rules for quite some time.

But beyond the call for regulations, the drone’s maker, DJI has decided to do a little self-regulation in the form of automatically pushing out some new firmware that blocks the drone from flying in downtown DC:

“The updated firmware (V3.10) will be released in coming days and adds a No-Fly Zone centered on downtown Washington, DC and extends for a 25 kilometer (15.5 mile) radius in all directions. Phantom pilots in this area will not be able to take off from or fly into this airspace.”

Even if you think it’s perfectly reasonable to ban drone flights in downtown DC (a different discussion for a different day…), it should be very concerning that the company you bought your product from can magically make it that much less useful on demand without you being able to do a damn thing about it. What if you happen to live in that no-fly zone, and you bought it to use for personal reasons at a local park. You’re completely out of luck because an overreaction resulted in the company breaking something you thought you bought.

Sometimes, the fact that devices you buy can be updated on the fly has benefits — like the stories of Tesla upgrading its cars to make them better even long after people bought them. That’s neat. But, it still seems immensely troubling that something you bought can be turned into a paperweight (in certain areas) by the company you bought it from.

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Comments on “You Don't Own What You Bought: Drone Maker Updates Firmware On All Drones To Stop Any Flights In DC”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This isn’t “banned in DC”. This is “banned” in Washington D.C., Arlington County, the City of Alexandria, the City of Falls Church, the City of Takoma Park, the City of Greenbelt, and large portions of Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the City of Rockville.

I say “banned” because no one has banned it, the manufacturer is just planning on crippling the drone in an arbitrary area.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Indeed, the “downtown DC” part is incredibly misleading.

To give even more perspective, it’s approximately 40.1 miles from DC to Baltimore. So this manufacturer instigated no fly zone of 15.5 miles, extends more than a third of the way to Baltimore (~38.65% of the way). Washington DC has an area of 68.3 square miles (177 km²). This “no fly zone” has an area of 755 square miles (1955 km²). The state of Rhode Island has an area of 1,212 square miles (3,140 km²).

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think it’s fine to program technology so it can’t violate no fly zones for the safety of everyone involved.

“It seems you want to fly your Boeing 747 into a no fly zone, this airplane can’t allow this, Dave”.

First think about the implications (in case of emergencies, for instance) something can have before making such stupid statements.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I think it’s fine to program technology so it can’t violate no fly zones for the safety of everyone involved”

So do most other people. Which is why the article says “a different discussion for a different day” while it’s actually addressing the slipshod manner in which it was programmed and the way in which it was applied.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Re: Better than the alternative..

You don’t need to jailbreak it. There are all sorts of flight controllers (even open source ones) that are available. You simply replace it.

My understanding is that this is not the first time DJI has added a no-fly zone in its flight controller. You also can’t fly over the forbidden city with the Naza flight controller (by DJI). In fact, they have a whole list of no fly-zones preprogrammed into their FCs:

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Better than the alternative..

I think good practices should still be observed, like operating inside your own property or a public space for safety (malfuntion), and privacy(camera) reasons…….no flying over folks densley packed together, or over many densley packed properties and such for the same reasons

Now, over, near, or right on top of any part of a secret orientated government facility……thats a gray area i.e. dont hide things from your nation

Seegras (profile) says:

Restricted or no-fly zones in aviation usually do not have a “radius”, but have rather complicated shapes. And they’re not two-dimensional either, they have a specific from/to height.

Plus you can usually enter restricted airspace if you announce your position, height and target by radio. The tower might give you further instructions on course and flight-level you need to keep.

So compared to what’s usual in aviation, this “self-regulation” of course allows you to do much less.

mcinsand (profile) says:

what will happen with driverless cars?

I can only imagine what might happen with driverless cars, if this lays any sort of a legal framework. However, as our devices and appliances become more connected, there are opportunities. I would like the ability to set my phone to automatically go silent in some geographic locations…I just don’t want someone else managing those settings.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: what will happen with driverless cars?

Porsche, Ferrari, BMW autos already detect the GPS location of every racing track around the world, so as to void their warranties.

It would be trivial to add this technology to every car, with additional locations to be determined by unelected bureaucrats.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The slippery slope possibilities are endless!

A very low power jammer placed next to the GPS antenna is very effective and almost impossible to detect from any sort of distance. It certainly would not interfere with other GPS receivers that might be nearby, and complaints from people who are getting such interference are the main way that jammers get caught.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 The slippery slope possibilities are endless!

They are illegal in the U.S., true, but in some other TPP countries, it is not. They are illegal in Australia, Canada, and the U.S., but not in any of the other TPP countries, which is I would not be surprised if TPP ends up including an item about GPS jammers, especially if China ever joins TPP, since nearly all the world’s GPS jammers are made in China.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: The slippery slope possibilities are endless!

Well sure. But most consumers won’t do this.

As for those who do, by applying tinfoil or yanking the fuse, they absolve the manufacturer of legal liability. Which is the whole point of the auto-disable feature (for both drones and cars) to begin with.

It’s a feature that isn’t defeated by yanking the fuse.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

This is why

This sort of thing is exactly why I do not allow anything I own to automatically update, ever. If I can’t block automatic updates, then I do not buy the product. I also don’t manually trigger updates to anything until the update has been in the wild for a while and I can see reports from others as to what effects the update has had.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: This is why

Fortunately, auto-updating capability requires the ability to communicate. It will always be possible to stop that communication one way or another, so stopping auto-updating for things that don’t require communication to do their job will always be possible. It’s trickier for things that do require communications, but not impossible.

However, that’s a long way off. For now, it’s pretty simple to just avoid products that you can’t stop from auto-updating.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This is why

Open source stuff like bel said is a possibility.

so stopping auto-updating for things that don’t require communication to do their job will always be possible. It’s trickier for things that do require communications, but not impossible.

The device doesn’t run if you don’t connect and update. Always on wi-fi that uses unsecured network for the update should do the trick. Etc. Things can get pretty bad for the non-tech-savvy. But I agree with you, so far it’s not impossible.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This is why

“The device doesn’t run if you don’t connect and update.”

I have encountered this sort of thing before, and the solution is to run your own service that mimics the one it’s trying to connect to.

“Things can get pretty bad for the non-tech-savvy”

Absolutely true. In fact, things are already pretty bad for the non-tech-savvy. But all it takes is a small number of tech-savvy people to put together a mitigation kit that can be used by everyone else.

I’m not claiming that any of the mitigation avenues are easy or convenient, just that they’re possible. I’m thinking of the worst-case future where we don’t stop this sort of insanity. At least we can provide ways to mitigate the problem for people who are sufficiently motivated to do so.

Anonymous Coward says:

“more drone regulations”

So let me get this straight. A drunk government employee does something stupid with drones and the solution is to pass more regulations against drones in opposed to doing more to prevent government employees from getting drunk and doing something stupid? I think the real concern here is who hired this guy and how did he get his job? Obama should be more concerned about the screening process for government employees. When the government needs to pass anti-drone laws that affect everyone to protect government from itself and its own employees something is wrong here. The only problem/threat here isn’t the public it’s the government and the public shouldn’t be forced to bear the burden or more dumb laws just because its own employees keep doing stupid things.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

(but all this government stupidity where government employees keep getting caught doing stupid things, such as this and the ATF getting looted, is a symptom of a hiring process based on nepotism/kinship, who knows whom and who is friends with whom, and racism and not one based on merit. The whole government has essentially turned into its own gang with its own code of honor composed of drunks and criminals that pretend to serve the public. In all likelihood this problems with drunk government employees is endemic but it’s only when one of them does something stupid that they ever get caught).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The funny thing is if it turned out to be a normal citizen responsible for this they would penalize him heavily and make his life miserable. but because it was a drunk government employee they kept his identity secret and probably only gave him a slap on the wrist.

Regular citizen breaks law = huge problem

Drunk government employee breaks law = no problem

Ned Ludd says:

The New DRM

Hey, its Drone Rights Management!

It would be so much more customer friendly if they just programmed the controller to give the user a big loud warning that they were flying in a potentially restricted area and then let the user decide.

The more we lock stuff down and take human judgment out of the loop, the more opportunity for unintended consequences to bite us in the ass.

Anonymous Coward says:

it should be very concerning that the company you bought your product from can magically make it that much less useful on demand without you being able to do a damn thing about it. “

This is not something new , many many, companies do this, on various platforms with the user having no say in the matter

And yes it is wrong, it will be abused……..theres nothing technical that says that this is needed for a product/srrvice to function, it is something that is willfully added ontop of an already working product………

not given the choice to refuse if you so choose is one issue, refusing because an update is not in the best interest of the buyer is a seperate matter

For security/privacy for the user, an update process, this i can accept, but you still have to give the choice, either a permanent on/off switch, or on the fly allow/deny when an update appears…….not a backdoor into products that occupy the homes of users…….a product once bought should be isolated from its producers unless the user specifically gives consent through the above examples

Tim Edwards (profile) says:

Does nothing for Security.

This is an arbitrary move by a vendor to put on a show for the politicians. Building in a GPS enforced No Fly Zone will not stop someone that wants to fly a package of contraband from one place to another. Open the body of the “drone” and simply unplug the gps receiver. Then you are free to fly line of sight to wherever you want. The gps only helps with automated flights and a few gee whiz features, but doesnt prevent manual control of the system by the pilot. Worst case, you will have to reinitialize the gps outside the no fly zone so the controller thinks you are somewhere else before you can disable the gps.

Or you can roll your own – arguably MUCH BETTER – multirotor and not deal with DJI at all (which includes the standalone versions of the Naza flight Controller).

gorehound (profile) says:

The one and only connection I have online is thru a landlocked, VPN’d Home built computer.
Fuck buying anything that makes you connect to the NET.Of course the Corporations will screw with your possession which you bought legally.
And if you do want to update……………DON’T !
Use google and see what the update does before allowing your possession to update.If the update is shit then why install it ?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Is There Clarity About The Update's Contents?


As a DJI flyer, it seems to me the following two questions are very important:

1) Is DJI being very clear about the reduced functionality the update will bring PRIOR to customers accepting the update?

2) Is there an option to NOT take the update, and continue flying in Grandfathered mode for all eternity? This would preclude opt-outers from improvements, too, but the functionality they bought would still exist.

If this kind of update is done with YES answers to the two questions above, then it satisfies your requirements about retaining the functions of the products you own. Sadly, my guess is that the answer to 1, at least, will be no.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Is There Clarity About The Update's Contents?

Last thought:

You could still fly your DJI Phantom around DC. The device uses GPS to improve flight stability and navigation. But it can also be flown in manual modes if GPS satellites are not detected.

So…make a tinfoil hat for your Phantom, blocking the view of the sky, and the Quad will never know that it is in the DC no-fly zone, and will happily fly in manual mode, which simply takes more skill from the pilot.

Anonymous Coward says:

So… one little RC quadcopter crashes into the White House and the government reacts in knee-jerk fashion. They threaten to regulate and the copter’s manufacturer likewise reacts in knee-jerk fashion by adopting this ridiculous GPS scheme.

Emotional responses make for bad policy. I hope at least that “solutions” like this GPS blocking won’t be adopted as law.

And can we please stop calling them drones and start calling them RC aircraft? “Drone” is a name intended to frighten people into thinking they’re something more serious than they truly are.

lostalaska (profile) says:

Different application, same old cr@p...DRM

I used to work at a school district doing IT across multiple schools. We had a couple new copiers I had installed over the summer in the staff media room. Within the first couple of days of the school year the machines were giving an error code and wouldn’t print or scan, even after turning them off and on again they would still show the code and not allow any of it’s functions to work. A staff member had called the company (there was a sticker on the machine with the local business’s phone number) and the company had already been out 3 times and was now saying they were going to charge a $100 a pop to come out and “fix” the machine. This was when I was finally informed of the issue. I went out to the school wrote down the code and looked it up via google. The first few pages of results had similar stories and basically the code that locked down the copier was because a teacher had been scanning dollar bills with their face taped to the middle of it for some class activity which teachers have done since they had access to copy machines. Now the machines saw the dollar bill and considered it potential counterfitting attempt and would lock the machine down until a tech would show up and clear the code with PIN number. Luckily one of the posts I found while searching through google also had the clear code (PIN) posted. So I just wrote up a quick explanation with the clear PIN and taped it to the wall behind the copier. Thanks DRM, because I’m sure that crappy 300dpi black and white copy machine has the potential to crank out real looking currency that has been scanned into it.

John says:

Craiglist flooded with DJI for sale

The terrorists have been thwarted again. The no-fly zone has blocked their plans so they have given up and sold their drones. Of course they wont try with another drone maker or disable the no fly feature. DC and surrounding areas are safe.

If you want a no fly zone why not prevent the drones from going into the high value target areas but still allow them to be flown in the local park? GPS is accurate enough to do this.

DJI must be admitting that its common for their users to lose contact with their drones which will continue on their last instructed heading. The 25 mile limit allows sufficient time for the out of control drones to run out of battery.

John85851 (profile) says:

Nice way to give business to your competitors

I can see the press release now:
DJI: We ban your drone from flying in Washington.
Every DJI competitor: We don’t.

Hmm… I wonder which company is going to see more business and income?

And even then, why is it the drone maker’s responsibility to force their users to be responsible? It’s like a car maker saying you can’t drive the car into a certain area. We can debate whether this is for “safety” or “security”, but the fact is that people should be able to make decisions like this on their own: if you want to fly a drone into the White House, go right ahead… but be prepared when you’re arrested by the Secret Service.

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