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Ain’t DRM Grand: Drone Maker Pushes Out Update Which Bans Flights in Washington, DC

Remember last week when a drunk govt employee crashed a quadcopter on the grounds of the White House?

DJI, the company which makes the thousand dollar drone that crashed last week, is a little embarrassed by the irresponsibility of one of their customer, and the bad publicity has inspired them to push forward with a firmware update which adds a number of no-fly zones where the drone will be blocked from operating.


According to Engadget and Time, DJI is pushing out a firmware update for the Phantom 2 drone which will block the drone from being flown anywhere within 15.5 miles of downtown DC. It will also add no-fly zones for US airports.

I’m still waiting for a confirmation from DJI, but at this time I do know that Time is reporting:

The company said it would release what it called a mandatory update for its drone operating system in the coming days. The update would automatically disable drone flights over Washington D.C. and fence off no-fly zones around than 10,000 airports across the country. However, owners of most DJI drones won’t be forced to download the update — those who choose not to install it would just miss out on new features down the road.

“We are pushing this out a bit earlier to lead in encouraging responsible flight,” said DJI spokesperson Michael Perry. “With the unmanned aerial systems community growing on a daily basis, we feel it is important to provide pilots additional tools to help them fly safely and responsibly.”

The Phantom 2 drone costs $899 from DJI (and up) and weighs in at just under 3 pounds. And for those who live in DC, it is now a very expensive paperweight.

And it wouldn’t be possible without DRM.

There have been times where I have been tempted to take a milder position on DRM, but then shit like this happens and I am reminded just how wrong DRM is from concept to practice. While some might claim that DRM exists to protect content creators, time and again it is used to abuse the rights of the end user.

Whether it’s making it impossible to transfer legally bought ebooks between devices, breaking a $200 litter box when it runs out of cleaning solution, or making movies vanish from a user’s account, or blocking users from installing a 3rd-party coffee pod, DRM is clearly a user-hostile technology.


Update: A reader has pointed out a key detail which I missed and may change your opinion. It’s illegal to fly drones in DC, a fact which DJL acknowledges on their website. In short, DJI is choosing to enforce federal regulations when they have no obligation to do so.

While that is their privilege, I still object to their decision to retroactively turn a thousand dollar drone into a paperweight.

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Q January 28, 2015 um 12:33 pm

More DRM nonsense. At least one disc cleaning machine from Venmill includes DRM. After 500 minutes of use you must purchase another "C2 chip" to keep using it whether or not you are out of other needed supplies.

Common Sense January 28, 2015 um 2:05 pm

Sounds like a good business opportunity for a competitor to me.

Thomas January 28, 2015 um 2:37 pm

I’d guess that there will be a lot of hacked firmware on these in the future.

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader January 28, 2015 um 3:17 pm

I would assume there already were alternate firmwares; it’s just that now they’re going to be de riguer for certain users.

fjtorres January 28, 2015 um 3:49 pm

And the manufacturer is now free of legal liability.
Corporate lawyers at work.

David January 28, 2015 um 3:55 pm

Personally I see this as an argument FOR DRM. Common sense says that it should be illegal and preferably impossible for anybody to fly drones over or close to an airport (or overhead power lines or railway lines)
. Personally I would not like anyone to fly a drone near my home either – it’s not just that I don’t want them filming me and my family, or checking out my security, but I don’t want any more noise around my home when I am trying to sleep at night.

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader January 28, 2015 um 4:01 pm

That is a good point, yes. But I am fundamentally opposed to people spending a grand and then having functionality taken away.

The Commons January 28, 2015 um 4:51 pm

What in the world…

>It will also add no-fly zones for US airports.

This was already in the firmware since at least early last year. Drones not being allowed in restricted airspace around airports is not a new thing, despite what you may have been mistakenly led to believe.

In fact, adding in the no-fly zone around Washington, D.C. is fixing a mistake on DJI’s part, as it was already established that unmanned aircraft are not allowed in that area. Why it wasn’t already in the table is a question left to DJI to answer.

>And it wouldn’t have been possible without DRM.

How on earth is a software patch that straight up limits functionality DRM? Do you consider speed limiters in cars' ECUs DRM too? How about the piece of code that blocks your WiFi adapter from broadcasting on certain channels (to prevent intererence) depending on what country you’re in, is that DRM too? They’re not offering to turn it off for a fee, or for some other quid pro quo. DRM sucks, but this has nothing to do with DRM at all.

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader January 28, 2015 um 5:08 pm

"In fact, adding in the no-fly zone around Washington, D.C. is fixing a mistake on DJI’s part, as it was already established that unmanned aircraft are not allowed in that area. Why it wasn’t already in the table is a question left to DJI to answer."

Got a link for that? I’ve read a half dozen stories and I can’t find anyone saying that you’re not allowed to fly drones in DC.

And thanks for the correction about the airport no-fly zones; I didn’t catch that detail when I browsed the drone maker’s forums.

The Commons January 28, 2015 um 5:56 pm

I don’t know how the spam filter handles links to PDFs, so just Google:

NOTAMs D.C. metropolitan ADIZ and FRZ "unmanned"

First two results should be PDFs for FAA advisories for the D.C. area. The relevant December 1, 2010. On page 4, you want to find section 4, subsection a. It lists a bunch of things that are banned, and near the end it says "Unmanned Aircraft Systems". This is their official terminology for the category that includes what we laymen call drones. It’s possible that there’s a newer NOTAM that overrides this restriction, but I didn’t find one. You could get a waiver, but I suspect the average Joe isn’t going to be granted one; that’s more for local law enforcement.

Nate, let me make one thing clear: anyone who owns a Phantom 2 in that FRZ, I agree that this really, really sucks for them, and I sympathize. I just don’t believe this falls under the fight against DRM. It fits more rightly into the age old debate of whether or not the end-user should be restricted (nannied, if you will) from screwing up and suffering the consequences: seatbelt laws, gun control, Kinder Surprise chocolates, magnetic buckyball toys, etc.

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader January 28, 2015 um 6:56 pm

A minor nitpick: based on the current FAA restrictions, drones would fall under "model aircraft operations". But since that is also listed in the same PDF it’s really not important.

And now that I know what to look for, I can see that even the drone’s maker has that no-fly zone marked:

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader January 28, 2015 um 7:00 pm

And yes, that does cut a lot of wind out of my sails. I’m going to have to rethink this post.

Thank you.

Drone Maker DJI Rolls Back Update that Blocked Flights in DC Airspace ⋆ Ink, Bits, & Pixels February 6, 2015 um 1:04 pm

[…] being embarrassed when a customer crashed one of its drones on White House grounds, and then rushing out a firmware update to make sure it doesn't happen again, drone maker DJI is back in the news again […]

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