“I watched it go down at full speed, even as I was using my thumb to raise elevation. It was as if there were some invisible hand controlling it.”
Something weird happened to Duncan Sinfield’s drone shortly after he was told by a security guard to stop flying over a tech company’s campus in the heart of Silicon Valley. It flew off, defying attempts to control it, and headed for a
“It mysteriously crashed into the bay near Redwood City and sank.”
Sinfield has no clue what happened, and neither does drone-maker DJI, which reviewed the craft’s flight data stored on the company’s servers.
Some drone enthusiasts believe Silicon Valley companies may be quietly working to install “hidden” barriers set up by third parties. Robi Sen, founder and chief technology officer of Maryland-based communications and security company Department 13, said that in addition to creating potential safety hazards, drones can be used to steal trade secrets — and his firm is helping companies thwart the crafts from hovering over their properties.
Sen said his firm’s software would allow a company to remotely “redirect an unwanted drone by setting up a geofence around its campus that says, ‘Don’t come in.’ ”
Faced with growing threats — from invasion of privacy to corporate spying to terrorists using “swarms” of drones to bring down an airliner — public agencies and private companies are rushing to stay ahead of the drone trend.
Department 13 and other firms are testing tools that can manipulate the radio signals sent between a drone and its user. “We essentially trick the drone into thinking we’re the user, and our product allows you to take control and safely land it — or even turn off its video camera while it’s flying in the air,” Sen said.
Sinfield, who started his monthly Apple flyovers in June 2015 and has generated more than 4 million views to date, said guards at the construction site have seemingly amped up their anti-drone security in recent months.
“I was still able to do my video each month,” he said, “except the last time, when they kicked me out before I was able to get” as much footage as in
One look at the video makes it clear that Mr. Sinfield is a very savvy videographer – which I would hazard a guess, is why he was shooting at sunset to avoid security. And there is no doubt that he is an experienced pilot. So while pilot error is always a possibility, and may turn out to be the explanation here, there is still a lot more to this story.
DJI has been open about the fact that they have customer flight data on their servers – something that one agrees to when one signs the EULA (User Agreement). The data is part of the flight control system between the drone and controller. So if you’re wondering how they got the data even though the drone sank, it is because it was on the controller.
The article spends a considerable amount of time discussing geo-fencing. It is important to note that geo-fencing only works with late model DJI drones running their Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) software. DJI recently made it possible to over-ride the feature in all but a few locations, most notably Washington D.C. And one can buy third party boards that bypass it completely for a few hundred bucks.
One of the still lesser-known provisions in FESSA is SEC. 2209. APPLICATIONS FOR DESIGNATION. “The Secretary of Transportation shall establish a process to allow applicants to petition the FAA to prohibit or restrict the operation of an unmanned aircraft in close proximity to a fixed site facility.”
It is a given that companies like Apple and hundreds of thousands of facilities of all kinds will seek designation once there is a mechanism to do so. DJI and their partners at AirMap will no doubt find a way to build those maps and make them available, but the inherent flaw with geo-fencing is that is based on voluntary compliance.
Which is unlikely to satisfy companies that are concerned about privacy and security. They will want a pro-active solution. Which is where Mr. Sen and Department 13 come in. If you haven’t heard of them, and I hadn’t, consider this description from their website:
Department 13 is a technology company with vast experience in solving advanced national security problems. 85% of Department 13 staff are PhD level software engineers and radio frequency communications experts focused on building the most capable drone defense solution available to government and commercial
As a friend of mine likes to say, these guys are bad ass.
Except that it’s not that easy. Because as Mark Dombroff recently pointed out, the FAA is not in the privacy business stating that: “The simple fact is that the FAA has no business in the privacy business, no legal authority to engage in it and no desire to become the watchdog of drone privacy.”
So then who and how?
The recent Utah law, H.B. 3003 was passed during an emergency session specifically to allow fire crews to use jammers to down drones interfering with wildfire operations. The problem is that not only is it illegal to down an aircraft (and drones are classified as aircraft which is why the FAA is in charge of them), it is also illegal to jam one which is an FCC issue. So far there have been plenty of drones shot down the old fashioned way with no prosecution by the FAA. Jamming in this context is a whole new thing.
Which leads to the biggest issue of all, which is what right do individuals have to control the sky over their property – and how high up does that right extend? The FAA would have you believe it’s all their’s from the wormhole to the heavens. But people are entitled to privacy and to secure what is theirs.
Stay tuned because there will definitely be more on this topic. If companies like Apple, Google and Amazon decide that the threat of industrial espionage is real, they will start their own lobbying effort. They certainly have the wherewithal to try and overturn the current rules and regulations. And they will also have public opinion on their side. Just sayin’.