A Primer on Geofencing for Drones and the Contentious Debate Over It

September 20, 2022

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Drones have incredible potential in business use cases, but are yet to fully realize it at scale — and it’s only a matter of time. When that time comes, geofencing for drones, an already contentious topic, will be put under the microscope again. This article will serve as an introduction to the topic and the debate surrounding it.

 Drones today are used in a variety of applications, ranging from photography, exploration and recreation to security, medicine and retail delivery. However, this wasn’t always the case; initially, drones were utilized primarily for military purposes and inaccessible to the average civilian. 

 Once the commercial market finally opened up in the mid 2000s and drones became widely available, there was no looking back. The possibilities for recreational and commercial uses were practically limitless, and drone popularity exploded almost immediately. With this proliferation of drones, though, arose new questions and problems. 

 How responsibly would the average layperson pilot their drones? Could anything be done to enforce drone regulations? Was there any way to keep drones from entering restricted or controlled airspaces? Were there any mechanisms to keep drones from crashing into each other? There was one answer to all of these questions and more: geofencing.

 The basics of geofencing

Simply put, geofencing is the setting up of digital boundaries around physical places or things. These boundaries, called geofences, trigger predefined actions whenever a registered object — in our case, a drone with geofencing features — breaches them. 

 Geofences are virtual boundaries that are easy to implement and can be erected anywhere at any time as required.

 Even if you don’t know it, you’ve probably already seen geofencing in action; perhaps you even use it regularly yourself! Do you have a car that automatically unlocks when you walk toward it with the key? That’s geofencing at work. The key (registered object) triggers the unlocking of the door (predefined action) whenever it breaches a perimeter (geofence) around the car. The same concept applies to gates that open as your vehicle approaches them; lighting and ACs that power on when you enter your house; contextual push notifications on your phone when you enter specific locations and many more daily applications. 

 When speaking specifically about drones, geofencing is commonly used to trigger warnings and restrict the operation of drones around or within sensitive locations like airports, military bases, prisons, schools, etc. Geofencing can help not only keep drones out of restricted areas but also limit them to flying within a specified boundary. 

 How geofencing for drones works

In the context of drones, geofencing works through continuous communication, via positioning technologies, between the geofencing application and the software of any given nearby drone. Drones broadcast their positions to the geofencing app, which monitors every device’s location and initiates a pre-programmed action every time a geofence is breached.

 It’s common to set up two geofences around some restricted airspaces. The role of the outer perimeter is typically to relay a warning signal to the drone’s pilot, instructing them to turn back and fly away to avoid serious consequences. If the pilot refuses to heed the warning and breaches the second geofence, the triggered action is usually to cease the drone’s flight and forcibly bring it to the ground outside of the pilot’s control. 

 Some restricted airspaces use two geofences — one to warn pilots to turn away and the second to forcibly cease operation of any unauthorized drones.

 Legally flying drones through controlled airspaces is doable as long as you acquire prior approval from the relevant authorities. The approval process generally requires you to furnish information about your identity, an identification number for your drone and the reasons why you’re looking to fly through the airspace. If you’re granted authorization, expect flight restrictions like altitude and boundary limits, and consequences if those limits are exceeded.

 Arguably the best thing about geofences is that they can be easily set up by virtually anyone at any time and any place. There’s no need for expensive physical barriers to limit undesired drone activity, which would be easily circumvented by drones anyway. 

 This is all good stuff, so what’s the debate over geofencing for drones, you may wonder. As with most things, despite all its benefits, there are valid points against drone geofencing. Let’s get into the pros and cons. 

 The pros

Some great points for drone geofencing have already been made, but let’s expand and add. 

Safety of airspaces

Maintaining airspace safety is the main purpose of geofencing for drones. There’s a well-documented history of incursions on sensitive airspaces by unauthorized drones. Military installations, airports, national borders and even the White House have been subject to drone incursions. It’s obvious why these kinds of breaches are serious problems, and geofencing can prevent most unauthorized drone entries.

 Geofencing also promotes airspace safety by minimizing crashes between drones. Geofencing and blockchain technology can be combined to create safe passages for each drone through an airspace. Such an implementation would assign specific paths to each drone, which can’t be trespassed upon by others. This idea can be used to designate emergency-only air corridors to facilitate safe and speedy passage for drones used by firefighters, medical teams and other emergency functions. On the commercial side, these air corridors could extend the same benefits to food, e-commerce and retail delivery drones. 

Suppression of illegal activity

When the commercial market for drones first opened, some of the earliest buyers were criminals. After all, drones were a quick and safe way to smuggle narcotics past borders and get contraband in and out of prisons.

 With the arrival of geofencing, the prevalence of drones in illicit activities dropped sharply. That said, geofencing didn’t fully eradicate drone-related crime. Why’s that, you ask? Because of one of geofencing’s biggest drawbacks. Let’s take a closer look.

 The cons

While the pros of drone geofencing are clear, there’s certainly the other side of the coin to consider.  

Need for permission

Geofencing has one huge flaw —. for it to work, it requires location permission from the drone. Without this permission, it’s not possible to keep track of the drone in real time and know when it penetrates a geofence. 

 Although most commercially available drones have inbuilt geofencing features that automatically grant location permissions, it’s not a rule; there are exceptions. Even if it were a rule, that still wouldn’t eliminate the existence of non-geofenced drones. Those resourceful enough to build their own drones can do so without the incorporation of geofencing — and it's not too complicated. At the end of the day, geofencing won’t stop determined bad actors from using drones for their exploits.  

Susceptibility to hacking

There’s another reason why incorporating geofencing into every drone would not be a complete solution to the problem — hacking. There are multiple ways to manipulate geofencing software such that drones circumvent their restrictions. One popular method is GPS (Global Positioning System) spoofing, in which location data is falsified to make geofencing software believe that the drone in question is positioned someplace other than its actual location

 Other vulnerabilities may come baked in from the factory. At least one major manufacturer of commercial drones has, in the past, released a product with flaws in its software code that were exploited to nullify its geofencing capabilities. In fact, there’s a Russian company dedicated to modifying and hacking certain drone manufacturers’ products to render their geofencing features obsolete. 

Complication of time-sensitive operations

Drones today find utility in a spectrum of time-sensitive applications, be it for emergency services, law enforcement or commercial use cases. When drones are being used to support such critical tasks as delivering organs for transplantations and fighting fires, time is of the essence. Every passing second can have serious implications and consequences, sometimes being the difference between life and death. 

 In these situations, geofencing can be more of an impediment than an aid. Every second spent making flight requests and waiting for approvals could prove tremendously costly (quite literally, for commercial applications). It can be argued that drones operated by emergency services and law enforcement agencies should have automatic permissions to fly through most controlled airspaces. But let’s not forget that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that hacks, failures, glitches and other unforeseen events do take place. Is that a risk worth taking? 

 It’s fair to say that the debate over geofencing for drones is not settled just yet. Though most straddle a middle ground where they can see both sides of the argument, there’s a noteworthy number of people on either extreme, passionately advocating for their views on the matter. Some drone manufacturers see opportunity here, selling drones that have no geofencing capabilities and making that their USP. 

 In any case, there’s more work to be done before the drone pilot community is completely comfortable with drone geofencing. Where will we ultimately end up on this matter? It’s hard to tell right now, but it’s certainly going to be interesting to watch the developments!


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