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DJI makes app to pinpoint drone pilots

A smartphone app will allow users to identify drones in the air

Chinese drone maker DJI has made an app that provides a way to scan for a nearby drone, identify its details and even find the location of its pilot.

The “drone-to-phone” monitoring system uses a Wi-Fi protocol, pulling on information that the drone broadcasts about itself and which can be easily picked up by a smartphone.

“Using a simple app, anyone within radio range of the drone can receive that signal and learn the location, altitude, speed and direction of the drone, as well as an identification number for the drone and the location of the pilot,” the company said in a statement.

The move comes in the midst of building pressure for manufacturers to come up with solutions for rogue drones, typified by the instance of a drone – or at least reports of a drone – effectively shutting down Gatwick airport in December 2018.

The functionality, which will only work for DJI drones, could be rolled out to existing models via a software update, according to the BBC. That’s pending agreement on regulation regarding remote identification of drones, however. A spokesman for the company also told the broadcaster it had not yet decided whether it would force customers to install the update.

The use of the “Wi-Fi aware” protocol means no extra equipment is needed to identify the drones. “Because it does not need to connect to a Wi-Fi base station, a cellular network or any other external system, it works in rural areas with no telecom service. In DJI’s preliminary testing, the Wi-Fi Aware signals can be received from more than one kilometer away,” the company said.

A considerable issue, however, is the fact that many smartphones do not currently support “Wi-Fi aware”, including Apple’s iPhone.

The US Federal Aviation Administration is currently in the process of putting together a ruleset for mandatory remote drone identification, although it could take more than a year for it to be fully put into practice. In the meantime, manufacturers such as DJI are being encouraged to come up with their own solutions.

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