DJI takes on homegrown drone hackers in arms race

DIY hackers are making the firm's life a misery in the quest to overturn flight restrictions.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Drone hobbyist hackers seeking to circumvent hardwired flight restrictions have forced drone developer DJI into a race to retain control of their craft.

As reported by Motherboard, consumer drone creator DJI, known for the Ronin and X5 drone families, is now embroiled in a fight to prevent customers from hacking their drones.

DJI utilizes No Fly Zone (NFZ), an inbuilt international feature which geofences flying locations such as airports, military bases, and restricted areas.

While this can not only prevent fines and irresponsible drone operators from endangering others -- such as in the case of airports and congested air traffic zones -- there are owners who want these restrictions removed.

All over the internet, drone enthusiasts are posting instructions and how-to guides to alter the firmware of DJI drones. While YouTube, Facebook, and forums are popular discussion zones for the best ways to circumvent no-fly zones and restrictions on everything from speed to height, it only takes a quick search to also find dedicated websites to the trade.

CopterSafe, for example, offers drone software "packs" to disable common restrictions on consumer drones. On the website, mods are on offer which removes NFZ limits as well as height restrictions, and this can be achieved through both software and hardware components which are plug-and-play physical modification circuits which work by confusing drone GPS systems and duping them into allowing flight in no-fly zones.

The escalating rates at which drone enthusiasts are seeking online methods to circumvent limits is worrying DJI, which most likely does not want a legal battle or incident to occur due to its products being compromised.

Within the last few weeks, the company has begun updating its firmware to eradicate commonly-used vulnerabilities exploited to circumvent NFZ restrictions and has also begun removing old, vulnerable firmware versions from its servers.

However, it is still possible to find old, archived versions hosted online by the drone community.

Speaking to the publication, a DJI spokesman said the company is investigating such modification and will "issue software updates to address them without further announcement."

"Unauthorized modification of a DJI drone is not recommended, as it can cause unstable flight behavior that could make operating the drone unsafe," Victor Wang, DJI's technology security director, told Motherboard. "DJI is not responsible for the performance of a modified drone and we strongly condemn any user who attempts to modify their drone for illegal or unsafe use."

As drone hackers and the community at large continue to wage war against restrictions through online exploit releases and private "unlocking" groups, some arguing that NFZ also restricts some flight areas without reason, DJI is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Restrictions on purchased devices upset some consumers, but there needs to be a safety net to prevent dangerous flights and potentially lethal accidents.

See also: Walmart's drone delivery plan includes blockchain tech

Earlier this year, NTT Docomo revealed a new kind of drone designed to plug adverts to consumers at events including concerts and festivals. The drone uses a LED spherical screen to ensure adverts are displayed at all angles while hovering above a crowd.

How to protect your laptop in cargo when you fly (in pictures)

Editorial standards