Information about temporary restrictions bounces along a winding path on its way to many of the hundreds of thousands of drones in the United States. Here, for example, is how information about President Trump’s upcoming visit to Mar-a-Lago, his club in Palm Beach, Florida, will end up being disseminated to consumer drones.
The process for establishing a presidential TFR begins when the Secret Service reaches out to the FAA and requests that a protective zone be set up wherever the president is headed. The FAA then publishes a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, with details about the restriction. Every time a pilot is getting ready to start their engines—whether they’re flying a business jet, prop plane, or three-pound drone they got for Christmas—they are supposed to check for new NOTAMs to make sure their flight path doesn’t cross restricted airspace.
The FAA has a clunky website where pilots can browse current and scheduled NOTAMs, but there are easier ways to access that data, too. The agency has a free, simple smartphone app called called B4UFLY that uses the phone’s GPS to show nearby restrictions—and it shares that data with a few other companies as well.
One of them, AirMap, gets data about travel restrictions from the FAA every few minutes, a spokesperson for the company said. In addition to plotting them on an interactive map, the company makes the data available to drone companies that subscribe to its service—including DJI, the largest manufacturer of consumer drones.
DJI, in turn, classifies the data in three categories: warning zones, authorization zones, and restricted zones. Finally, those areas, with their classifications, are sent to every internet-connected DJI drone that supports geofencing.
Warning zones tell drone operators they’re flying over a special area, but don’t prevent flight there—a protected wildlife area might be categorized this way.
Most temporary flight restrictions are designated as authorization zones, which require drone operators to confirm their intention to fly in. When a drone noses up against one of these, its operator will be asked to “self-authorize,” acknowledging the fact that there might be extra rules in the area the drone is entering. “By doing that, you say in the popup window that you have authorized business in here,” said Adam Lisberg, a spokesperson for DJI. (The 30-mile zone around D.C., for example, is an authorization zone.)
To self-authorize, operators need to have connected their drone to their identity by submitting a mobile phone number or a credit-card number. That way, if law enforcement has questions about a DJI drone flying where it shouldn’t be, the company can help police track down its operator. Lisberg says the company complies with all legitimate law enforcement requests, but wouldn’t share any details about how often such requests come in.