DJI updates apps to include internet kill switch

Desperate to settle the nerves of their clients who may have been spooked by allegations of data espionage, drone manufacturer DJI has decided to add an internet connection kill switch to their flight control applications, which the company says will prevent the apps from sending data to DJI or any other third parties.

DJI are good at making beautiful drones, give that at least. In fact, their drones have been so good they have literally blown competition out of the water, with a near monopoly of the world drone market share, which they currently dominate by a staggering 70 percent, according to various drone market researches. It would have to take something very left field and equally staggering for their competitors to catch up.

Well; something left field and equally staggering has now happened.

Bad press.

DJI may have won the commercial drone market wars, but it seems they are no match for the propaganda onslaught from the US government, which has ordered its federal departments to stop purchasing Chinese made drones and ground and all drones made in China or working with components made in China; on the pretext that the drones send client data to servers in China, where the Chinese government has the power to order companies to hand over any data it may require.

With no love lost between Beijing and Washington, suffice to say the Americans are touchy about the possibility of China having a backdoor to peak into their affairs.

Of course, DJI have strenuously denied these allegations, which they have been fighting since they started surfacing in 2017. They have tried to argue their case directly with the US government, and even went as far as engaging the services of at least four reputable independent consultants to test the security features and policies of their products, but all conclusions and reports absolving the drone maker of any data security dishonesty have fallen on deaf ears.

Now, there is a real danger that, the quality of their drones notwithstanding, the company will lose its control on the biggest drone market in the world, after the government recently recommended five competing manufacturers as more trustworthy to work with that DJI.

Only time will tell whether the new update to the DJI software will salvage their operations, but they had to do something.

The company announced that it was expanding its Local Data Mode feature, previously only available to the DJI Pilot app, to now include the GO4 and FLY flight control apps within the coming months.

“Local Data Mode provides government and commercial customers with additional assurance that data generated during drone operations is effectively protected,” said the company in a statement. “It is an internet connection “kill switch” feature within DJI’s command and control mobile applications that, when enabled, prevents the app from sending or receiving any data over the internet.”

Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems – under which drones are included – are flown using a remote-control unit and flight control apps installed on smart phones and tablets. The two can work in conjunction or independent of each other, and while in operation, they “routinely communicate over the internet with servers from DJI and third-party service providers” for various operating purposes, which include checking for software and firmware updates and for relevant localised data for flights, including maps to display on the app screen; geofencing restrictions including government-issued temporary flight restrictions; radio frequency and radio power requirements for the flight region; and other information that enhances flight safety and functionality.

Enabling Local Data Mode will stop the flight control application from accessing the internet, automatically cutting off communication with DJI and third-party servers. As mentioned earlier, the third-party service providers include local map services, which a user can still access without connecting with other servers, by turning on the Local Data Mode with a option to “Allow Map Services”.

“With this feature enabled, drone operators can easily and effectively cut off all network connections from DJI’s mobile applications and prevent any data from being transferred to DJI or other parties,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs. “For commercial and government customers who generate highly sensitive data and operate with rigorous data security protocols, Local Data Mode provides simple and effective operator-controlled assurance that no data from their flights will be transmitted over the internet. This expanded capability for DJI customers builds on the results of FTI’s independent analysis and demonstrates yet again that DJI empowers its customers to protect their data.”

The company said their latest features was tested and independently verified by cybersecurity firm, FTI Consulting.

Speaking at a webinar in May this year, Schulman had said DJI was working with the US government to come up with government-specific drone with special features with higher data security requirements that would give employees no option at all to communicate with outside servers, whether they belong to DJI or to third parties. The company said the latest update for government drones had the option to cut off all internet communication by permanently enabling the Local Data Mode.

The US government has been one of the major clients for DJI drones, choosing them for their reliability in operations like fire-fighting, public safety and policing.

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