As Russia widens its military offensive in Ukraine, DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of civilian drones, is finding itself embroiled in the middle of the dispute. DJI is being accused of giving Russia preferential access to its AeroScope drone detection platform, while some units of the same system provided to Ukraine are reportedly malfunctioning. The Chinese drone maker is vehemently denying both allegations.
What is DJI AeroScope?
DJI’s AeroScope is a Remote ID system that provides authorized users with the location, altitude, speed, and direction of every DJI drone within radio range (over 30 miles). The system also displays the aircraft’s serial number and the location of the drone pilot on a computer map. However, any personal information that the pilot may have used while registering the drone with DJI is not shared.
Typical users who are authorized to install such a system at their premises include airports, police departments, prisons, and prohibited military zones. The telemetry information from a drone is broadcast directly to the AeroScope receiver so that these authorized users can identify and track drones, as well as take action if any of them raises concerns.
DJI has AeroScope clients in both Russia and Ukraine. But as company spokesperson Adam Lisberg points out, “Wartime uses for AeroScope were never anticipated.”
So, is DJI blocking Ukraine from detecting Russian drones?
The first thing to know is that DJI drones are apparently being used for reconnaissance activities by both Russia and Ukraine.
But in Ukraine, particularly, these drones are proving so helpful to keep tabs on the invading forces that the Ukrainian army is both urging small drone owners to join the fight against Russia and is seeking easy to fly, sub-250-gram DJI Mini drones in military aid.
The trouble is, as drone use increases in the war-torn country, there’s no one to stop the Russian army from amplifying the use of AeroScope units and tracking the position of Ukrainian drone operators.
And Ukraine would do the same to detect Russian pilots flying DJI drones. But as Taras Troiak, a drone dealer from Kyiv, alleges, several DJI AeroScope units provided to Ukraine – including those supposed to guard the nuclear power plants – are not working.
Now, DJI’s Lisberg doesn’t deny that there have been technical problems with “some” units in Ukraine. But he also stresses that reports of providing preferential treatment to Russia or blocking AeroScope access in Ukraine are incorrect. Here’s Lisberg:
These reports are FALSE. We are aware of problems with some AeroScope units in Ukraine; they may be connected to prolonged loss of power/internet. But there is NO deliberate action to downgrade AeroScope there.
Following this statement, Lisberg was asked by a Twitter user whether DJI had any plans to impose geofencing restrictions that would prevent the company’s drones from taking off in the Ukrainian airspace. To that, Lisberg replies:
Our geofencing restrictions for Ukraine (and the rest of the world) are visible at https://dji.com/flysafe/geo-map. Our geofencing is designed for notification, not enforcement. And as others on this website can tell you, determined hackers aren’t bothered by geofencing.
Despite Lisberg’s assurances, Troiak from Kyiv, who also runs a drone-focused Facebook group with more than 15,000 members, isn’t taking any chances. He’s advising drone operators to refrain from updating any DJI apps and keeping geolocation on their smartphones turned off. He’s also urging donors to activate DJI drones in the countries of purchase before sending them to Ukraine.