Chinese drone developer DJI has announced the launch of a new product called AeroScope, which can identify and monitor unmanned aircraft systems.
AeroScope uses the existing communications link between a drone and its remote controller to broadcast identification information such as registration and serial number, as well as other information pertaining to flight safety and functionality including location, altitude, speed, and direction, DJI said in an announcement on Thursday.
The registration and serial number functions can be used to determine the owner of a drone that raises concerns, functioning similarly to a licence plate.
The product can be used by police, security agencies, aviation authorities, and other authorised parties with an AeroScope receiver.
"As drones have become an everyday tool for professional and personal use, authorities want to be sure they can identify who is flying near sensitive locations or in ways that raise serious concerns," Brendan Schulman, DJI's VP for Policy and Legal Affairs, said in a statement.
DJI said AeroScope works with all of its current drone models, although other drone manufacturers can configure their existing and future drones to transmit identification information in the same way. This is because the product doesn't require new on-board equipment, on-board modifications, extra steps, or costs to operators.
The company said AeroScope has already been installed at two international airports since April, and is undergoing performance tests in other environments.
Additionally, DJI insisted that "most" drone flights will not be automatically recorded in government databases, as the system relies on drones broadcasting information directly to local receivers. This is designed to protect the privacy interests of people and businesses that use drones, DJI said, as well as to avoid the costs and complexities involved with creating such databases and connecting drones to network systems.
Personally identifiable information will also not be automatically transmitted until regulations or policies in the pilot's jurisdiction require it, DJI said.
"This system is consistent with DJI's problem-solving approach to drone regulation, which aims to strike a reasonable balance between authorities' need to identify drones that raise concerns and drone pilots' right to fly without pervasive surveillance," the company said in its announcement.
In August, DJI announced that it would be developing a new local data mode that blocks internet traffic to and from its flight control apps, after the US Army ordered its members to stop using DJI drones because of "cyber vulnerabilities".
The company said at the time that its flight control apps routinely communicate over the internet to ensure a drone has up-to-date local maps and geofencing data, correct radio frequency and power requirements, and other information deemed relevant to flight safety and functionality.
The new local data mode enables users to disconnect from the internet during flights, making it impossible for data such as photos, videos, and flight logs to reach DJI's servers.
The company said this will provide "enhanced data privacy assurances" to government and enterprise customers with "heightened" data security needs, such as those performing sensitive operations around the world.
The company insisted that it does not collect or have access to user flight logs, photos, or videos unless the user shares them by syncing flight logs with DJI servers or by uploading photos or videos to DJI's SkyPixel website.
The local data mode had been in development for several months, the company said, and is available on the DJI Pilot app.
However, it will not be available in all countries if there are regulations that require pilots to have the most up-to-date maps and information.
DJI has begun updating its firmware to eradicate commonly-used vulnerabilities exploited by customers to circumvent no-fly zones and other restrictions such as speed and height. The company also started removing old, vulnerable firmware versions from its servers.
The move was prompted by drone enthusiasts posting instructions and how-to guides to alter the firmware of DJI drones on YouTube, Facebook, forums, and even dedicated websites.