Sunday, April 14, 2024
Background

Elevating Concerns: 11 Critical Flaws in the EU-wide Drone Geo-Awareness System

At the core of European drone regulation lies a noble goal: to integrate geospatial awareness into drones to enhance airspace safety. Drones with C1, C2, or C3 labels are mandated to be equipped with a system that notifies the pilot about geographic zones where flying is restricted or prohibited. Ideally, this should lead to the safe integration of drones into the airspace. However, reality has proven to be challenging, as an analysis by Dronewatch indicates.

The Concept of ‘Geo-Awareness’

To prevent drones from flying in unauthorized areas, many consumer drones have been equipped with geofencing for several years. DJI, a leading drone manufacturer, developed the Fly Safe system, which consists of map information automatically loaded onto every newly sold drone. This system prevents drones from taking off or alerts users about restricted areas. Updates are made with a simple button press. Users with extended permissions can request temporary unlocks through a DJI portal.

The introduction of European drone regulations brought forth a new standard for geospatial awareness. This standard aims to ensure that all drones, regardless of brand or model, load the same geographic zones. The responsibility for designating these zones has shifted from manufacturers to member states, which are required to make this information accessible to drone operators. Drones must have an interface for loading this local geo-information.

Problem Analysis

Despite the theory, the implementation of the geospatial awareness system faces numerous problems. Not only is the implementation lacking on various fronts, but there are also conceptual gaps. Based on user experiences, Dronewatch has compiled an extensive problem analysis, followed by several recommendations.

1. Lack of User-Friendliness

A primary concern regarding the implementation of geospatial awareness in drones is the system’s lack of user-friendliness. It is challenging for users to manually load the geo-zones, which are provided in a JSON file in the ED-269 format, into their drone. This process varies across brands and models, posing a barrier for many users. The inconsistency in procedures leads to confusion and frustration, as not all pilots are proficient in managing their devices’ technical aspects.

2. Lack of Foolproof Operation

Furthermore, loading the correct geo-zoning is far from foolproof. The system is prone to errors; a single typo in the JSON file can lead to an error message, preventing the correct loading of the file. This issue raises concerns about the system’s reliability and the practicality of maintaining accurate and up-to-date geo-zoning in the drone, as legally required.

3. Enforcement Challenges

Enforcement of these regulations also presents challenges. It is unclear how the presence of the most recent geo-zoning in drones is verified and what the consequences are for non-compliance. The ability for users to independently adjust the JSON file further undermines the geo-zoning system. Since JSON files are not encrypted, they can be altered using a simple text editor, allowing for the easy removal or modification of zones.

4. Absence of Actual Restrictions

The current implementation also misses the opportunity to physically restrict drones from entering prohibited zones. Instead, they only receive warning messages without actual restrictions, questioning the system’s effectiveness. This aspect is vital for preventing flights in highly sensitive areas, such as near airports or prisons.

5. Challenges with Updates and Maintenance

Moreover, updating and maintaining geo-zoning presents a logistical challenge. Managing the JSON file, correcting errors, and ensuring that all users have access to the latest version requires considerable effort. Users must manually check for new versions and, if available, download and install them. For DJI drones, this complexity is increased as local geo-zonings are now combined with the manufacturer’s zonings, which are updated differently, adding an extra layer of complexity.

6. Issues with Large Data Files

The size of some zoning files also poses problems. In countries like Germany and France, urban areas are marked as no-fly zones, leading to highly detailed zone maps. This requires significant memory and processing power from drones, to the extent that some geo-files cannot be imported or processed. Even less extensive files significantly slow down performance.

7. Excessive Zones and Warnings

In some countries, including the Netherlands, the large number of zones leads to an overload of (dismissible) warnings. Users may ignore these warnings, especially when they seem irrelevant. For instance, certain temporary no-fly zones active for only one day per year are displayed all year round.

8. Potential for Dispute

Interestingly, the opposite situation can also occur. In the Netherlands, numerous local governments and land managers establish no-fly zones independently. These often lack a legal basis and thus cannot be considered official geo-zones. Such areas do not appear in the official geo-information, potentially leading to disputes with local law enforcement officers and forest rangers when drone pilots rely on the geospatial awareness system.

9. Inability to Load Multiple Datasets Simultaneously

Individuals wishing to fly across borders face another issue. For example, DJI has arranged that when a JSON file from another member state is loaded, previously loaded geo-zones are removed from memory. It is, therefore, not possible to have multiple geo-datasets in the drone simultaneously.

10. Difficulty Removing Imported Files

In the case of DJI drones, it is not possible to manually remove an imported JSON file once it has been loaded. The manufacturer has confirmed this to Dronewatch. Dronewatch plans to offer a ‘quick fix’ for removing imported geo-datasets without needing to reset the drone and controller.

11. Insufficient Education

Lastly, a lack of communication significantly undermines the concept of geospatial awareness. Ideally, member states should handle this, but according to Dronewatch, no national government has effectively organized such education. It is also unclear where drone pilots can find geo-datasets from other countries.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Theoretically, introducing geospatial awareness in drones represents a step forward in airspace regulation. However, its practical implementation is fraught with challenges. The lack of user-friendliness, technical limitations, and ineffective enforcement detract from the system’s potential to enhance airspace safety. Reevaluating the implementation with a focus on accessibility, reliability, and enforcement is crucial.

Currently, geospatial awareness provides, at best, an illusion of safety. It exemplifies a measure designed without practical testing before implementation. Problematically, since January 1, drone pilots in the Open category with C1, C2, or C3 drones are legally required to use the system but face numerous issues.

Dronewatch recommends that at the highest levels, namely EASA and the European Commission, the system for geospatial awareness and the regulations 2019/945 and 947 be reviewed as soon as possible, preferably in consultation with manufacturers. Recommendations also extend to the national level.

To European policymakers:

– Establish a uniform EU-wide framework / decision tree for granting or rejecting geographic zones, which member states can implement in their own zone application process.
– Provide member states with the necessary tools to create and validate zoning files.
– Leverage open data and require drone manufacturers to retrieve and update geo-datasets via a central server in a user-friendly manner.
– Avoid the necessity for manual uploads of datasets, preventing users from modifying them in a text editor.
– Prevent the ‘stacking’ of datasets (information from member states on top of the manufacturer’s geo-system), ensuring a ‘single source of truth’.
– Enable the loading of multiple datasets related to different countries side by side for cross-border operations.
– Implement some form of version control for enforcement purposes, possibly combined with dataset encryption and digital certificates.
– Give certified operators the option to completely disable the geospatial awareness system.
– Test systems in practice before making them mandatory. Systems not yet fully developed, like the current geospatial awareness systems, should never be mandatory to prevent unintentional violations by drone pilots.

To national policymakers:

– Exercise caution in establishing no-fly zones and zones with restrictions to avoid users ignoring warnings. Zoning should not override personal responsibility and general rule knowledge.
– Solicit feedback from drone operators on their experiences with geospatial awareness. Their valuable insights can significantly improve the system.
– Engage with local governments and land managers who independently establish no-fly zones. Inform them of the zoning framework to ensure that drone pilots in the Open category can rely on the geospatial awareness system.

General:

– Improve communication to drone pilots. EASA must provide clear and practically validated information to member states, forming the basis for further education for end-users. National governments should actively provide education through their channels, associations, and relevant media.

Wiebe de Jager

Wiebe de Jager is the founder of Dronewatch (available in Dutch and English). Wiebe is an experienced drone pilot (EASA Specific category certified) and has published a number of bestselling books about drone photography and cinematography.

2 thoughts on “Elevating Concerns: 11 Critical Flaws in the EU-wide Drone Geo-Awareness System

  • Herman Krebbers

    Important overview and message. How this regulations are in USA and importing in usa drones is working?

    Reply
    • Wiebe de Jager

      The FAA doesn’t impose standards for geo-awareness (yet).

      Reply

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