I wasn’t expecting that we’d spot any drones when I joined Nick Martino, an airport operations supervisor, on his daily patrol around Camarillo Airport. We climbed into a white Chevy Tahoe, its side emblazoned with a blue “7,” and Martino used a two-way radio to clear the runway of any aircraft nearby. (The Tahoe was big, but an aircraft would win.) In my lap I held a 40-pound Pelican Case, the latest creation from Chinese drone-maker DJI. Two wand-sized antennae stuck out of the top lid of the case; inside was a touchscreen display, running mapping software.
Martino calls this box “the gizmos,” but its real name is Aeroscope. It’s DJI’s new solution for detecting rogue drones that are flying nearby. Martino and his team at the Ventura County Department of Airports have been testing Aeroscope since October, when DJI contacted the department and asked if they wanted access to an early prototype.
DJI’s ask was savvy: airports are not only restricted airspace, where drones can be problematic, but Camarillo Airport also happens to be one of the first in the country that was UAS-approved by the FAA, according to Martino. In other words, Martino and his team fly drones themselves, using them to inspect towers and monitor wildlife on the outskirts of the runways. They like drones. This made Camarillo an ideal testing ground.
Martino was telling me about his daily patrol routine when, in the middle of our conversation, the Aeroscope box began squawking, a series of beep beep beeps that sounded like an old landline got left off the hook. “We’ve got a hit,” Martino said. Based on the information on the Aeroscope display, the drone pilot appeared to be near Port Hueneme, California, about 10 miles away.
Martino seemed almost as surprised as I was.
That wasn’t the only “rogue” drone we spotted while taping episode 2 of Next Level season 2, an episode focused largely on DJI’s new Aeroscope technology. While interviewing Michael Perry, DJI’s managing director of North America, in Golden Gate Park, the Aeroscope box sniffed out another drone flying nearby. This one was several blocks away from our location in the park — harmless enough, but one that, if you see “flying straight towards you, at high speed, that’s something I’ll want to investigate,” Perry said.
Those examples are anecdotal, as are the stories of drones sometimes flying over wildfire sites, or landing in the bleachers of a sporting event. But there’s no doubt that both personal and commercial drones are growing in popularity. According to research firm Gartner, 3 million personal and commercial drones will be produced in 2017, nearly 40 percent more than in 2016. The FAA predicts that combined personal and commercial drone sales will reach 7 million by 2020.
At the same time, the laws around drones in the US are still surprisingly unclear. The FAA has established clear laws at the federal level and around restricted airspace, but other drone rules fall under local jurisdiction. There are sometimes exceptions made to the rules, such as when a local judge cleared a Kentucky man of any charges after he shot down a drone near his property. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the laws for commercial drones are also different than the laws around personal, or hobbyist, drones.
In the meantime, dozens of technology companies and contractors have created “Remote ID” systems, charging ahead without waiting for policy makers to decide on more concrete legislation.
DJI is one such company. Its new Aerospace system works by detecting the communication signal between a DJI drone and the DJI controller. It decodes that signal, and then sends the drone’s telemetry data and registration information to the Aeroscope box. The product is aimed at public safety officials — people like Nick Martino, who keep tabs on airports, prisons, or natural disaster sites. But since DJI is the North American market leader in personal drones, Aeroscope also has the potential to impact the many drone pilots out there, who may have varied interpretations of the rules.
After Aeroscope alerted Martino to a drone flying within the vicinity of the Camarillo Airport, I asked him what would happen next. A small aircraft icon hovered over the map on the CrystalSky display in front of me. Once the pilot stopped flying the drone, it dropped off the map.
But I could still see, when I tapped through a list of recent drone activity, that the pilot had been flying an Inspire, one of DJI’s own, and the pilot’s personal email address was visible. Update: DJI says the production version of Aeroscope will not show pilots’ email addresses, and that an Aeroscope users will have to use a drone’s serial number or registration number to get in touch with the drone pilot.
“So now what we can do is we can, essentially, send him a friendly email, introduce ourselves and the airport and hopefully engage,” Martino said. “[We say] the airport doesn’t approve or deny any FAA UAS operations, but there’s a proper method to getting approval to fly in restricted airspace.”
I’m imagining emails that are perhaps more strongly worded than that, but Martino insisted his team is focused on educating the community on drones. He said he thinks most people want to fly responsibly, and that the “bad eggs” are few and far between.
DJI’s Perry echoed this, when I asked him whether he thinks Aeroscope is going to make DJI customers nervous. He said he believes the vast majority of users want to operate safely, though he did later say the data captured on Aeroscope could “start an investigation path” if law enforcement did see a need to slap a drone pilot with a fine.
DJI’s solution is not a complete one right now. The company says Aeroscope only tracks DJI drones, addressing about 65 percent of the market, though in the future a firmware update could connect it with other drones. And there’s still the practical matter of the slowness of email. A drone could indeed be problematic for the eight or 10 minutes it’s flying near an airport; but an email to the pilot (even a friendly one!) may not be looked at for hours or even days later.
Some in the industry say that drone detection is not nearly as contentious as issue as drone interception, actually taking down the drones. This is, for the most part, illegal in the US, but again, things are sticky. So for this episode of Next Level, I also spoke to Grant Jordan, the chief executive of SkySafe, which is currently working with the US military to test drone interception technology. I suspect they’re sending fewer friendly emails.
For now, Nick Martino says he wants to get Aeroscope installed directly in his fleet of patrol cars. In fact, he’s also been talking to DJI about doing this, as well as installing it in department helicopters. He hopes there are more direct messaging features coming, something that would be more immediate than emailing a drone pilot.
“In an ideal world that would be best-case scenario,” Martino said. “Also, as the public becomes more aware that this type of technology is available and in the hands of law enforcement — firefighters, and at airports — ultimately, those people thinking about flying in restricted airspace may think twice.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated November 15, a day after its original publication, to include more information from DJI on how Aeroscope users will be able to contact drone pilots once the system spots their drones.