Drone maker DJI has issued a software update intended to frustrate Isis terrorists who have been using low-cost “quadcopters” to drop improvised bombs in Syria and Iraq.
The move to create new “no fly zones” for its products across Iraq and Syria is DJI’s first admission, albeit a tacit one, that its products have been commandeered by terrorists.
It is also the latest sign of tension between the authorities and technology companies over terrorism. Internet companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google have come under growing criticism for their handling of extremist content.
Over the past few months, US military officials have become increasingly concerned about Isis’ use of drones such as DJI’s Phantom, which are designed for consumer photographers, are controlled using a smartphone or remote control, and cost a few hundred dollars.
After first using them for surveillance, Isis has started dropping grenades and improvised explosives from these small aerial vehicles on to Iraqi forces in Mosul and nearby areas. The terrorist group formed its self-described “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen” unit in January and has released video footage of the attacks on its propaganda websites.
In an apparent effort to prevent these attacks, DJI has updated its “geofencing” system, which is normally used to prevent its customers from flying their drones in restricted areas such as airports, prisons and power plants. DJI created the new no-fly zones in the Middle East through its mobile app in February. The changes were first reported this week by tech news site The Register.
Although it is the global market leader in consumer drones by sales, DJI is just one of several manufacturers whose devices have been used by Isis. The Shenzhen, China-based company did not say why it had made the changes to its “Geo” system, which was introduced to help amateur flyers comply with civil aviation rules around the world.
“DJI makes products purely for peaceful purposes, which is how the overwhelming majority of pilots use them, and we deplore any use of our drones to bring harm to anyone,” DJI said. “Our geofencing system is designed to advise pilots of airspace restrictions, and was never intended to enforce laws or thwart people who want to misuse our products.”
It added that it was “constantly adjusting” the areas that are restricted through its app for reasons of “aviation safety or national security . . . to account for temporary conditions that create special restrictions, such as wildfires and major public events”.
The technical change can only go so far to prevent attacks using low-cost drones, which Isis terrorists have also assembled using kits instead of them buying off-the-shelf.
DJI allows customers to override or “unlock” some restricted areas, which its website states are “advisory only”.
“Geo allows users with verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorise their flights,” DJI says on its website. “This unlock function is not available for sensitive national-security locations.”
Verifying a DJI account requires a credit or debit card, or a mobile phone number. “DJI does not collect nor store this information, which is verified by a third party service,” the manufacturer’s website says.