The Mavic Air 2 launched to much fanfare about its incredible image quality and its long 34-minute flight time.
But there is a big feature on the Mavic Air 2 that most other news sites aren’t talking about, and it matters a lot: Mavic Air 2 ADS-B.
ADS-B has widely been accepted as a safety feature that ideally would be on all aircraft. But it’s also been seen as expensive and complicated, so the industry — until recently — has accepted that it wouldn’t belong in consumer drones.
That has changed.
The Mavic Air 2, which was announced on Monday night, is DJI’s first consumer drone designed to include AirSense technology, essentially an ADS-B feature that can detect other nearby airplanes and helicopters.
AirSense is an alert system designed by DJI that uses ADS-B technology to gather flight data automatically sent from nearby aircraft with ADS-B transmitters, analyze it to detect potential collision risks and alert users in advance through the DJI mobile app.
What is ADS-B?
ADS-B, which was first used back in 1943, is a surveillance technology that allows any equipped aircraft to determine its position via satellite navigation and broadcast its location periodically so it can be tracked in real-time.
In an effort to reduce airspace congestion, the Federal Aviation Administration required that all aircraft in Class A, B, C and E airspace be required to carry equipment that produces an ADS-B Out broadcast (though there is no requirement to carry an ADS-B In, which receives data and provides it to in-cockpit displays).
Drones tend to fly in Class G airspace, which the rule does not apply to. But by putting AirSense (and thus ADS-B tech) in its new consumer drones like the Mavic Air 2, DJI is getting one step ahead.
With AirSense, ADS-B allows the Mavic Air 2 to receive signals from nearby airplanes and helicopters, and displays their location on the drone pilot’s control screen. As these other aircraft approach the drone, AirSense will warn the drone pilot with messages, sounds and vibrations, so they can act (aka move away).
There are actually two components of ADS-B technology: Out vs. In.
- ADS-B Out can be installed in traditional aircraft to determine and broadcast flight information such as flight path, speed, and altitude
- ADS-B In receives information broadcast from ADS-B Out transmitters
DJI drones like the Mavic Air 2 only use ADS-B In, allowing them to see nearby traditional aircraft without congesting the airwaves by adding additional transmissions.
In fact, the FAA has proposed prohibiting the use of ADS-B Out for most commercial drone operations (those under Part 107) unless the operator has separate permission, out of concern that the potential proliferation of ADS-B Out transmitters on drones may actually have a reverse affect on safety.
“The projected numbers of UAS operations have the potential to saturate available ADS-B frequencies, affecting ADS-B capabilities for manned aircraft and potentially blinding ADS-B ground receivers,” according to the FAA’s December 2019 Proposed Rule on Remote Identification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
What the Mavic Air 2 ADS-B news means for the drone industry
With AirSense, DJI managed to put professional-grade aviation safety technology in a drone that costs less than $800 (it had previously been available only on some professional-grade DJI drones like the Mavic 2 Enterprise).
Just a few years ago, AirSense and equipping $800 drones with ADS-B might have been thought impossible. A 2014 study by Colin Snow, founder and former CEO of research firm DroneAnalyst found that most drone industry experts felt current ADS-B units were too expensive, too big, and too heavy to include in drones.
But a lot can change in six years. DJI promised last May that all new DJI drone models released after Jan. 1, 2020 and weighing more than 250 grams would have that AirSense tech.
“Our ambitious commitment to installing ADS-B in our new product models means Mavic Air 2 will be the world’s largest single deployment of ADS-B receiver technology, fulfilling and furthering our vision as the industry’s leader on voluntary safety efforts,” said DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman in a prepared statement.
To be sure, it’s ambitious — and expensive. But DJI sacrificing profits to equip its Mavic Air 2 with ADS-B In could also be a lot cheaper than bad press from a drone crash, or even levels of regulation that are so high they cause drone sales to crash.
Aviation advocacy groups like AOPA have recommended that drone pilots purchase ADS-B receivers for their drones. But most people buying consumer-level DJI drones are looking for a ready to fly drone — they aren’t willing to add modifications to something that’s otherwise good to g out of the box. Not to mention, few recreational drone pilots are members of groups like AOPA — and likely even fewer have even heard of it.
“In the drone industry, it is becoming the culturally responsible thing to integrate ADS-B as the DAA technology of choice,” according to an October 2019 memo from AOPA. “Just like in the cockpit, ADS-B In on your drone gives you precious minutes to detect, decide, and act. The more operators participate in ADS-B, the safer everyone will be.”
But it’s unlikely that DJI customers would participate in ADS-B if it weren’t already built-in to their drone.
That’s why aviation experts are lauding DJI’s Mavic Air 2 ADS-B decision.
“ADS-B In is used daily by thousands of pilots to increase their situational awareness and ensure safe operations,” said Rune Duke, Senior Director of Airspace and Air Traffic at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “All of aviation will benefit from the incorporation of this technology into DJI’s large fleet.”
The question is: will other competitors in the consumer space, like Skydio, be able to keep up with DJI’s increased technology (without the increase in consumer costs)? Likely not.
Adding ADS-B tech in consumer drones is all part of DJI’s industry-leading 10-point Elevating Safety vision published last year.
DJI’s 10-point Elevating Safety vision
DJI has long positioned itself as not just a leader in high-quality technology, but a leader in safety. The aviation industry as a whole has a history of being more opposed to regulation than in favor of more rules, preferring to take a self-regulation approach. And DJI is following along, taking aggressive measures to self-police their customers in measures that have been lauded by manned aircraft efforts.
“DJI’s safety policy is beyond what we have been urging the FAA and other drone manufacturers to require for multiple years,” said Andrew Moore, Executive Director at the National Agricultural Aviation Association. “Studies show that small drones are nearly impossible for our pilots to see, let alone track. An ideal drone system for manned ag pilots is one that has an ADS-B tracking system that can sense and avoid agricultural and other manned aircraft. (DJI) deserves real credit for this safety initiative.”
But it’s not just good credit and karma points that DJI is seeking.
Presumably DJI wants to do everything it can to avoid an accident so strict rules won’t be put in place — because that means DJI can sell more drones.
DJI’s long history of implementing self-policing includes geofencing technology (software that prevents drones from flying in certain areas, like a sort of virtual fence), and a requirement that drone operators pass a DJI Knowledge Quiz in the DJI app (that’s aside from government-required tests in some countries) before they can take off their drone.
DJI has also implemented automatic altitude limitations to prevent its drones from flying over certain heights (400 feet AGL is the limit in the U.S.).
DJI also equips many of its drones like the Mavic Mini with a program called AeroScope, which allows safety and security officials to detect, identify, and locate the drone and its pilot during flight, primarily for use at airports, stadiums, high-security events, and other sensitive locations.
And with DJI’s 10-point Elevating Safety vision, they’ve taken it a step further. Here are those 10 points:
- DJI will install ADS-B receivers in all new drones above 250 grams (as evidenced by this week’s Mavic Air 2 launch)
- DJI will develop a new automatic warning for drone pilots flying at extended distances
- DJI will establish an internal Safety Standards Group to meet regulatory and customer expectations
- Aviation industry groups must develop standards for reporting drone incidents
- All drone manufacturers should install geofencing and remote identification
- Governments must require remote identification
- Governments must require a user-friendly knowledge test for new drone pilots
- Governments must clearly designate sensitive restriction areas
- Local authorities must be allowed to respond to drone threats that are clear and serious
- Governments must increase enforcement of laws against unsafe drone operation
By equipping its Mavic Air 2 with ADS-B, DJI is positioning itself as a leader in safety — not just flashy camera technology.