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When Trump Is in Town, Drones Can't -- and Won't -- Fly. Here's Why

Larger drone manufacturers build their devices with software to keep them from flying into areas where presidential and other flight restrictions are in place

by Kristina Webb, The Palm Beach Post, Fla. / February 24, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — When President Donald Trump is in town, drone owners might notice their devices acting a little strange.

That’s because the larger drone manufacturers build their devices with software to keep them from flying into areas where presidential and other flight restrictions are in place — as one local hobbyist learned recently.

“I was prevented from even starting the rotors on the drone,” said Tequesta resident Chris Leyden, owner of and captain for Seaport Yachts. That was when he realized that the flight restrictions issued by the Federal Aviation Administration extend out to 30 nautical miles from the central point near Mar-a-Lago.

Leyden, who owns Seaport Yachts, immediately surmised the FAA restrictions might be behind his drones non-response.

The FAA issues flight restrictions for a variety of reasons, including air shows and military exercises. But Palm Beach County residents are becoming increasingly familiar with the range of of flight restrictions associated with a presidential visit, as Trump has spent the past three weekends at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.

In Leyden’s case, he said he uses his DJI Phantom 4 drone, which costs about $1,200, to take photos and videos of boats. He was out at Jupiter Inlet a couple of weekends ago on clear day — “It was beautiful out,” he noted — when he found that his drone wouldn’t lift off the ground.

“I was a bit surprised because I knew about the 10-mile restriction for aircraft, but I was surprised by the 30-mile radius,” Leyden said.

Shawn Holmgren, owner of Palm Beach Drone, said that he’s seen drone sales grow by about 600 percent a year for the past few years, composed of a mix of commercial users and hobbyists.

“I’ve talked to hobbyists that were unable to fly and had some reactions to that,” Holmgren said of the restrictions issued around Trump’s visits. “Most of the professional pilots are watching the notice to airmen and are anticipating that.”

The system that keeps drones on the ground within a restricted area is called “geofencing.” And while commercial drone pilots — who must register, obtain insurance and receive certification to fly — know to check for flight restrictions before each take-off, Holmgren said geofencing is designed for those drone users who may not know to check with the FAA.

“People think that they’ve bought a drone and they are somehow immune to the airspace regulations, and the FAA has gently applied pressure to make sure people do register their aircraft, do comply with the (flight restrictions), and then they realize there’s a lot of consumers who just don’t get it,” Holmgren said.

A good example of one of those consumers: a 13-year-old who’s just received a drone for Christmas, who can use a joystick “but hasn’t been put in the know,” Holmgren said. “So they will inadvertently break the law.”

DJI, one of the largest drone brands in the world, rolled out its Geospatial Environment Online system in 2015. “For the first time, drone operators will have, at the time of flight, access to live information on temporary flight restrictions due to forest fires, major stadium events, VIP travel, and other changing circumstances,” the company said in a news release.

The DJI Phantom is one of the most popular high-end drones on the market. And the company is one of several — including Yuneec and Parrot — that worked with the FAA “to forcibly apply the patches that would preclude people from flying,” Holmgren said.

But users shouldn’t assume that means DJI is in the enforcement business.

“We want everyone who uses our products to be very much aware of how to use them safely and responsibly, and be aware of anything that may affect their operation,” said Adam Lisberg, U.S. spokesman for DJI.

With DJI drones, a GPS receiver in the device “talks” with the controller, which can be attached to either a tablet or smartphone running the DJI app. “Whenever that connects to the internet through the app, it picks up updated information on no-fly zones, TFRs and other airspace warnings,” Lisberg said.

If a drone pilot is attempting to enter an area where a flight restriction is in place, the drone will halt mid-air when it hits “that invisible line in the sky,” Lisberg noted.

The software does allow for “authorized users” to overwrite the restrictions and enter the airspace: “In situations like that,” Lisberg said, “you enter something that can be identified to you, whether it’s a credit card number or mobile phone number. You say, this is who I am and I am verifying that I have an authorized reason to be here.”

Education and planning is key for drone users, whether commercial or hobbyist, Holmgren said. He pointed to a free app from the FAA called B4UFLY, which let’s users know about flight restrictions nearby.

“When they pull it up on their phone, it will tell them, ‘Oh boy, you’re in Palm Beach County? Guess what you can’t do right now,” Holmgren said, laughing.

Leyden said he thinks the software is “absolutely fantastic,” and he’s glad it prevented him from violating restricted airspace.

“I was disappointed more in myself,” he said. “I could have fired up my drone at home and I would have seen the no-fly zone there.”


• The Federal Aviation Administration offers a free app for tablet and smartphone users call B4UFLY. For more information, go to

• To register your drone, go to

©2017 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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