Geofencing Stops Drones in Their Tracks

The technological development is a natural evolution following the massive increase in drone operation licenses granted by the FAA since August.

by Drew Dixon, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville / August 1, 2017
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(TNS) -- While it’s been nearly a year since the Federal Aviation Administration started issuing more licenses for civilian drone operations, technology is now trying to keep up with restrictions placed on the unmanned aerial vehicles.

More and more systems are being developed to make sure drones — both commercial and hobbyists — don’t stray into FAA restricted air space in areas such as airports or military installations. With that, so-called “geofencing” is being added to drones, either with components being fixed to the device or through mobile applications that control their flights.

Geofencing is basically a virtual perimeter programmed with GPS data that keeps drones from veering into restricted air space.

“I can get a drone today that has geofencing where it’s an electronic [virtual] fence,” said Brent Klavon, board member of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and director for commercial drones at Aviation Systems Engineering Co. in Jacksonville.

“Think of it as an invisible dog fence. If my dog [with an electronic collar] tries to leave the yard, it gets zapped and turns around. Similarly, a drone would know it’s approaching an invisible fence … and it would hit that bumper and return,” said Klavon, whose company was the first FAA-licensed commercial drone operation on the First Coast.

Either through a small box-like device attached to a drone or programmed applications entered into the remote control, GPS coordinates are used to alert drone systems as to what air space is off limits.

It’s an emerging technology, Klavon said, designed for safety controls. He said the geofencing for drones is currently in a state of development similar to the early stages of air bags in automobiles. Eventually, all drones will be equipped with the technology to prevent them from straying into prohibited air space.

The technological development is a natural evolution following the massive increase in drone operation licenses granted by the FAA since August, when the agency loosened requirements. Tens of thousands of licenses have been granted since and the main concern not only in the industry but also among regulators is that so many drones may be in the air that they could collide with manned aircraft.

The FAA stipulations state that drones cannot operate within a 5-mile radius of an airport. Similar restrictions are in place for many governmental installations such as military bases.

While Klavon said he is unaware of any accidents caused by collisions between drones and manned aircraft, the FAA has recorded hundreds of near collisions across the country in the past three years.

The issue of drone control is so prevalent, NASA is even in the process of creating additional technology in geofencing that uses GPS coordinates entered by government entities that will keep drones from drifting into restricted air space.

Kelly Hayhurst is a senior research scientist for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where she is working on upgrading geofencing technology through a system called Safeguard.

“There’s a lot of liability in the potential for causing harm to people and property,” Hayhurst said. “That’s big, especially in a very new industry. If these things start causing a number of catastrophic events, that’s going to slow the growth of that industry tremendously.”

Ultimately, Hayhurst said, geofencing can stop a drone in its tracks.

“For each of our fences, we set up a buffer in front of the boundaries. When the drone crosses into a buffer, the drone gets a warning that goes to its autopilot that says, ‘You need to take some corrective action,’ ” Hayhurst said. “It has an opportunity to not go across the fence.”

If the drone does not take evasive action and doesn’t vacate the restricted air space, Hayhurst said the virtual fence can actually force the drone to land immediately.

“We send a signal to a flight termination system” forcing the drone to the ground by cutting off all mechanical operations, she said.

The data that sets the parameters of air space are usually generated from the sources at airports, governmental installations and even from businesses. Most drones being manufactured now have sensors built into their pilot programming that picks up on those parameters.

At Built Drones, a commercial and consumer drone shop on Atlantic Boulevard in Jacksonville’s St. Nicholas area, technician and sales representative Justin Stevens said the industry is already adjusting to the virtual fencing, though a mechanical addition to the drone is not really necessary.

“They’ve got an app … you can set up points on that as well. That’s the same kind of idea or system as a geofence. It’s plotting imaginary points based on GPS coordinates,” Stevens said.

Stevens added that a mobile application and the virtual fencing are no more expensive than many apps that can be purchased and downloaded from any Play Store on Android or iPhone devices.

Klavon said this is no fad. It’s essential to keeping the drone industry in flight.

“This is technology that would be something that manufacturers could be told that they have to have and incorporate into their system so when they sell these things … there’s built-in safety features that could help prevent that mid-air collision,” Klavon said.

There is the catch, though, Klavon said, that if geofencing is a government mandate on businesses that forces them to add the technology to their drones, push-back is likely from the industry.

“This is technology that would potentially be employed on every drone,” Klavon said. “How it would be enforced, that’s a completely different question. Now you’re asking industry to incorporate things they may not want to.”

Geofencing is also emerging as Florida law is becoming more uniform regarding drone use, Klavon said.

State law just went into effect on July 1, Klavon said, to keep local governments from regulating drone and model aircraft operations in Florida and, in turn, protecting those flying safely and within the bounds of the law from unnecessary regulations.

The law does, however, permit local governments to enact or enforce local ordinances relating to illegal acts, such as voyeurism, property damage and harassment arising from the use of drones and model aircraft, Klavon said.

©2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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