What is Geofencing & How Does it Affect Drones?

Last updated January 7th, 2020
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With the advancement of GPS technology over the years, many high-tech solutions and systems have been created that rely on it heavily.

One of these solutions is geofencing.

Geofencing is a nifty tool that allows animate and inanimate objects to have a virtual relationship with their physical surroundings or offline surroundings.

Let’s simplify that a little bit.

What Is Geofencing?

A geofence is a virtual fence — sometimes referred to as a perimeter — which is defined around a particular area or location. The presence of a geofence usually means something happens when boundaries are crossed. For example, when an object enters or tries to leave in any direction, something is triggered.

Think of it like a smart fence around your home, where an alarm is activated whenever someone intrudes without authorization.

Geofencing is being applied in many different contexts and in a wide variety of fields and none of these is more prominent than in the world of drone tech.

What Does Geofencing Mean in Drones and How Does it Work?

Geofencing in drones act as a means to fence them off from entering or leaving certain described areas that could be considered sensitive.

Examples of sensitive areas could include prisons, airports, government offices, or national monuments, to name a few.

What geofencing does is restrict unmanned aerial vehicles from getting too close to these sites. The technology is able to keep the drone from coming within a described radius around a sensitive area.

Geofencing in drones also works in reverse, by stopping drones from leaving beyond a defined perimeter while completing a defined mission. An example where this could be useful is in the agricultural or inspection field where you would want your drone to stay within site rather than stray away.

In this manner geofencing could be cause a ‘fencing in’ rather than a ‘fencing off’.

As you can imagine, for geofencing to work properly, a drone requires a reliable system for navigation — usually this is a GPS module, and also autonomous flying capabilities.

These features allow the drone identify and interact with the virtual fence.

For example, imagine a drone operator defines a three mile “no-fly zone” around a local airport.

The drone will be able to identify and store the coordinates of the airport, as well as any other airports if you so desire.

As the UAV flies, the autonomous system continuously gauges the distance between the device and the no-fly zone.

As soon as it reaches 3 miles, the autonomous system will respond in one way or the other. Usually it will notify the drone operator to do something. It could even bring your drone to the ground automatically.

If the drone is already in the no-fly zone before takeoff, the autonomous feature may prevent the drone from taking off altogether.

The main advantage that geofencing brings is that that it eliminates the need to build physical barriers to restrict the flying of drones in sensitive areas. As drones can theoretically fly hundreds of meters into the sky, a physical barrier is an impossibility in practical terms.

As a completely digital system that relies on digital maps and codes which are defined by the drone operator, geofencing is completely flexible and completely customizable, able to meet many needs.

Do You Need GPS for Geofencing to Operate?

Now, a lot of people assume that GPS is the only navigation system that can make geofencing possible. But that is far from the case.

In reality, geofencing is flexible enough to be implemented with a wide range of technologies.

There are many technologies that leverage positioning enough to be useful for geofencing.

These technologies include: cellular data, Bluetooth beacons, GPS, and WiFi. All of these are capable of being paired with a device so that a geofence can be erected using precise and accurate data.

And for many of these, their effect on the lifespan of your drone’s battery is far less than what you can expect with GPS-enforced geofencing.

Among the most popular things about geofencing is the fact it can be set up anywhere. You could set it up around an airport, a farm, or your home town.

At this moment the tech makes use of Apple and Google databases (referred to as native positioning by many); and this means that you don’t have to do any of the ground work required for building your own maps.

But the size — large or small — does not alter the basics of how geofencing works. The principle remains the same, that is, you define the areas you are interested in fencing off (or being fenced in) and then you punch in the instructions into an application.

No coding of any maps is required. There are lots of tech platforms that have done that hard work for you so that you don’t have to.

Are There Any Limits to Geofencing?

No technology comes without limits. The work of human hands and all. So you can expect same with geofencing technology.

That said, most of the limits of geofencing have to do with indoor use.

Using geofencing features indoors needs some preparatory work done in the area or location that is of interest.

Remember that most positional technologies are most effective outside and lose a bit of their edge when things are taken inside. GPS is most affected by this.

Using geofencing indoors will require that you map the areas for WiFi or geomagnetic coverage, or you make use of a Bluetooth beacon to define areas of interest.

Another limitation has to do with scope.

Factors that influence the scope of geofencing technology include the size of the area in question, the shape, and the amount of geofencing required.

There are minimums and maximums that are imposed for certain areas, when it comes to size, for example. While in some areas you can go as low as 2 meters in size, the most common minimums usually range from 20 to 50 meters.

The effect of geofencing on a drone’s battery lifespan is also a limitation of the tech.

Geofencing can take a toll on your drone’s battery, so you need to carefully plan for it in order not to shortchange your flight experience in your bid to interact with your environment.

Factors you need to take into account in order to stay on top of things include accuracy, battery level, and background functionality.

What Do You Need to Set Up Geofencing?

You need basically two things in place in order to use geofencing on your drone:

Geofencing App

You need a geofencing app. This is the most important aspect. You need a geofencing app installed so that your drone can detect entering, exiting, identifying other drones, and many other interactions with a particular location.

Location Permission

The second thing you need is location permission. Geofencing can also alert you to the movement of other drones in and out of a specified area of interest. But this only possible if that users gives permission for their drone location to be shared. Usually, the location is shared in the form of live updates.

Do Some Drones Come with Geofencing Built Into Them?

With the rising number of incidents caused by drones wondering into sensitive or restricted areas, many people have been calling for their outright ban among the population.

Drone manufacturers have a better idea, however, for keeping the skies safe for all and sundry: implementing geofencing into their drones by default.

Apart from the many cool things you can do with geofencing, including switching on the lights and opening your garage door when the system senses your drone flying towards home, you can also fence off certain sensitive locations.

Before, manufacturers and lawmakers left this entirely in the hands of drone operators. But after a drone wondered over to the White House lawn in 2015, manufacturers like DJI saw the need to impose and install geofencing limits on their hardware in order to stave off trouble.

Geofencing will prevent takeoffs and flights in restricted areas like military bases, airports, government offices, and so on.

Manufacturers have doubled down on this in recent times. For example, DJI makes the DJI GEO systems available to operators of its drones, and this illustrates clearly the areas which DJI drones will respond to automatically.

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