It’s an announcement that might have slipped a few people by, but the DJI Government Edition could be a notable step in the safety and security of high-level drone operations. In short, it’s about providing quality data protection at the highest level, with DJI handing full control of its drones and the data they capture over to the user, most notably by removing the possibility of transmitting photos, videos or even telemetry data from the craft over the internet. This way, the data gathered from each flight never leaves the drone and therefore, according to an announcement press release, “can never be shared with unauthorised parties, including DJI.”
Isn't my drone data protected already?!
This has been a common reaction to the DJI Government Edition announcement, but in truth, as soon as you begin transmitting data over the internet or via wireless devices then it becomes more open and at risk from people who might have the means to grab that data. With the Government Edition, DJI aims to close as many of those doors as possible in order to minimise any potential threats – not to mention providing a healthy dose of peace of mind for its users.
Your everyday drone owner is unlikely to have such people looking to get a sneaky peek into their daily operations and so we’ve become used to having full control over all of our photos and videos, happily sharing them with clients or over social media while still out in the field. We don’t care if someone else sees our pictures or knows what field we were flying in last week, because no-one should really care enough or be able to do anything useful with that information.
However, for government agencies, and many of the sub-departments on a local or national level, security of all such data is crucial – especially if they’re looking to utilise third-party operators and outsource some of the vast range of potential UAV ops, from infrastructure inspections to agricultural analysis and even for emergency response situations. You only need to look into the fear-filled stories of mobile phones supposedly being used to spy on people and steal data to appreciate the concerns that would also translate across into the drone market.
“DJI Government Edition allows government agencies to serve the public more efficiently and effectively using the industry’s most widely-adopted drone technology, while maintaining total control over their data.”
Mario Rebello, Vice President and Regional Manager of North America at DJI
How does the DJI Government Edition work?
Although based on existing DJI hardware, the DJI Government Edition is “controlled by custom device firmware and operational software in a unique architecture that supports the highest device requirements.” So while you may want to fly the likes of an M600 or Mavic Pro, as usual, this means that the drone no longer requires activation from DJI and instead all of the software is to be validated and checked by the owner.
This also applies to any future updates that the company might send out. Whereas standard operators may be faced with mandatory or automatic firmware updates, Government Edition owners, or their aviation/IT departments, can review all potential updates before applying them across their fleet, with full control over their implementation and what or when to install.
Perhaps most importantly, the system has a permanently-enabled Local Data Mode tied into the customised DJI Pilot app, which prevents all data transfers from the mobile app to the internet and other third parties. We should point out that this also includes DJI, so while its servers might have been a handy ‘home’ for various operational data, that potential link has also been severed so not even DJI will be able to see what you’ve been doing with its craft. Similarly, the system also prevents users from hooking up with any drones or controllers that aren’t also running the Government Edition tech, to eliminate the risk of possible leaks through insecure or unauthorised pairings.
Who is the DJI Government Edition for?
Upon its announcement, the DJI Government Edition for data protection has been described as “a comprehensive drone solution created specifically for use in high-security situations by government agencies around the world.” Having worked closely with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) for some two years, with the DOI recently announcing independent validation of the solution after a 15-month test period, it’s no surprise that the American government and its many branches are the headline contenders – but we can’t see any real limitations.
DJI highlights how it “meets the stringent requirements” for use in the government sector, notably in areas of “data management, risk mitigation and enterprise-level data sharing control”. When you think about use cases for the tech within a government it’s easy to think about all of the ‘James Bond’ stuff that might be going on and how no-one would want to leak national secrets because 007 left his mobile phone on a bus. However, the range of uses can be much wider and mostly far more mundane – but certainly no less worthy of keeping the all-important data as safe as possible.
It could be operators conducting inspections of government sites or mapping key infrastructures, such as military bases, prisons or anything else that you wouldn’t want to share with the public, let alone other countries. It could be for disaster relief agencies or emergency responders looking to monitor a situation from above, or even crime scene investigators analysing a fatal incident where, again, that’s what you want appearing or YouTube or your nightly news bulletin – at least not without your control and approval. It could be wildlife conservations projects against poachers, land management, airport security or just about anything else you can think of where the data gathered could be abused or misused in the wrong hands.
In many ways, this is something that could be easily translated into the corporate community as well, where information really can be powerful in the world of big business. The name obviously indicates that governments are the primary market for this solution and, though there’s no mention of opening the product up to more commercial applications (nor of any restrictions against it for that matter), it’s certainly a market that would have equal concerns about keeping data from its aerial operations safe and secure.
How secure is the DJI Government Edition?
As with just about anything, we doubt if DJI or anyone else is saying that your data is 100% safe at all times. After all, whenever a new data protection technology comes along there’s always going to be some hacker who looks to find a way around it. The best that a solution like this can do is to close as many of the doors as possible and say ‘if you want access to this data, you’re going to have to be highly skilled and work very hard for it’. But for those who want to keep their aerial operations in-house, it’s certainly a better alternative than leaving the front door wide open and the welcome mat rolled out.
As mentioned, DJI does have validation from the US government’s Department for the Interior. It began its testing of the DJI Government Edition solution way back in April 2018, so it’s not like DJI has pumped this out as a reactionary measure to recent concerns around mobile data protection. The DOI was using DJI’s M600 Pro and Mavic Pro craft for the test period, assessing the flights, payload and data management performance equipped with the new firmware and software.
As part of this independent evaluation, the DOI also collaborated the NASA Kennedy Space Center and “other industry and federal partners with expertise in data management assurance testing”. After more than 2,200 flights and 500 hours in the air - 1,133 flights with the M600 Pro at 298 hours, 1,112 flights with the Mavic Pro at 240 hours if you’re curious – DJI states that the DOI found that “during testing, there was no indication that data was being transmitted outside the system.”
How safe is the DJI Government Edition?
Not everyone will see the appeal of the DJI Government Edition and certainly a lot of people won’t have the need for such a solution, but as the digital age continues to transform the way in which we people can share, steal or manipulate data, it’s important that the drone industry also acknowledges the risks and offers up solutions accordingly. In this instance, it’s a relatively straight-forward three-step solution – Local Data Mode, firmware control and restricted drone/controller pairings – but it’s a welcome step in the right direction for those who do want to grasp as much control over their aerial operations as they can.
As the industry continues to grow, especially in the enterprise sector, then so does the list of use cases. As governments embrace the technology and increase their own aerial operations, so the need for outsourcing some of this work will increase, and a tool like the DJI Government Edition adds a welcome layer of trust to those agreements. If you know those operators are also using it, then that mitigates a large chunk of risk – although obviously, you can’t compensate for the human factor if someone at that company has their own agenda for wanting to share the data with others.
Whether you work for government agencies or not, data protection for your aerial operations could be treated much like anti-virus software for your PC, in that it’s always better to have something in place than to regret not having it later. To this extent, even though it is just one single solution to the potential problem, DJI Government Edition could be one very important step forward for the industry as a whole.
“This is DJI’s most secure drone solution to-date because it prevents users from accidentally or even intentionally transferring data off of the drone to other parties. By incorporating these assurances into its architecture, the Government Edition solution meets the rigorous data security expectations of government agencies, and provides them the safety, reliability, and ease of operation that DJI’s products are respected for by commercial drone pilots around the world.”
Mario Rebello, Vice President and Regional Manager of North America at DJI