DJI blocks flying above Tiananmen Square with software update

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A China-based manufacturer of small unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly called drones in the media, has instituted a "no-fly" zone over Tiananmen Square.

DJI Innovations, the manufacturer of small consumer and professional drones for aerial photography, has placed a virtual fence around the city center in Beijing, China, within a software upgrade for its leading flight controller.

In the release notes for the latest upgrade of its WooKong-M flight controller (PDF), DJI mentions "Flight Functions are restricted within the radius of 15Km from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China." DJI released the update yesterday.

Ian Hannah, a registered pilot and operator of Avrobotics.ca, and a DroneJournalism.org member, said in an email that this development amounts to censorship.

"I have always thought it would be good for users to be able to have the ability to restrict where you fly, so you could put in your local airport or other safety driven no fly area, using the GPS as your electronic leash, but this is different," he wrote.

Hannah and others noted that a DJI product equipped with the WKM flight controller provided important aerial video for a citizen journalist in Istanbul during clashes between police and protesters.

In his email, he also questioned the size of the no-fly zone, when the common 900mHz control link for DJI equipment has a range of 9 kilometers at most. Hannah relies on a DJI S800 for his aerial photography work.

Tiananmen Square is the site of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protestors, where hundreds of university students, factory workers, and other Chinese dissidents were killed. The actual death toll remains unknown to this day, but estimates range between 400 and 6,000 killed.

Since the massacre, Tiananmen Square remains highly guarded by the Chinese government, and censorship in and around the square is the norm. Shortly after the crackdown in 1989, NBC's Brian Williams famously rode a bike through Tiananmen Square, trailing a camera hidden on another bike. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government placed a ban on live shots from the Tiananmen Square. In 2009, nearing the 20th anniversary of the massacre, CNN cameras were blocked by umbrellas held by plainclothes officers.


"Tiananmen Square is most know in the west as the centre of the democracy protests in China in 1989 and still holds a powerful symbolic meaning  for all who were there," Hannah wrote. "Now you will no longer be able to fly a WKM system within 15 km."

An email requesting comment has been sent to DJI's North American office in Austin, Texas this afternoon. I'll have updates if I obtain a response.

Top photo Flickr / Mayakamina. Bottom photo DJI Innovations.
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Posted on July 19, 2013 .