When a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter drone crashed at the White House in late January, Hong Kong-based DJI responded quickly with the release of a software update that added a 15.5-mile no-fly zone around Washington, preventing its Phantom 2 products from taking off in the area.
The company already had no-fly zones that prohibit flights within 8 miles of thousands of airports.
Other companies, too, are trying to anticipate problems, according to Colin Snow, founder and chief executive of Redwood City, Calif., drone industry research company Drone Analyst.
Many companies already have created software to automate the process of checking for Transportation Security Administration no-fly updates, Snow said, and using GPS and other technologies to keep drones flying legally has become an industry norm.
State College, Pa., startup Ares Drones believes its app offers an option that maximizes safety by minimizing the chance for human error.
Founded in September by Ben Brautigam, Sherwyn Saul and Justin Miller — who are IT managers at Penn State University — the company has developed software that prohibits drones from entering no-fly zones and stops elevation of the devices short of the 400-foot height ceiling imposed by regulators.
Using a touch-screen interface designed with Apple Maps, the Ares App allows users to trace a designated flight plan directly onto the map.
Designated no-fly zones are marked in red circles on the map, and any flight plan that attempts to pass through a zone is rejected. Once a flight plan is approved, the drone flies along that path autonomously, without any manual interference.
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Ares’ founders said they’re not aiming to sell their technology as a means to cut hobbyist-controlled flights out of the equation. Their goal is to market the technology to real estate and insurance companies.
But they can see how regulators might find the idea appealing.
“The way the (Federal Aviation Administration) has traditionally worked is that you plan your flight before you fly. When you get on an airplane, that’s all planned out before it takes off,” said Miller, who is also vice president of product development.
“With drones, we don’t have that right now. So for us, we want to build that back in. The more traditional view is you’re planning first so you can check against these dangers and issues,” Miller said.
The FAA began allowing drones, or unmanned aircrafts, in the country’s national airspace in 1990. It has been steadily updating policies for commercial and recreational drone use since 2012.
Under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, commercial agencies seeking to fly drones in the national air space must obtain a Special Airworthiness Certificate that grants exemption to companies using drones for research and development, flight and sales demonstrations, and training exercises.
So far, the FAA has issued 24 regulatory exemptions to companies seeking to use drones for commercial use.
Hobbyists are generally limited to flying drones at heights below 400 feet, at least 5 miles away from airports and air traffic, and they must keep drones in sight of the person operating them.
The agency is working on a definitive order regarding use of drones that is expected to be released this year.