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DJI's Spark drones to be bricked by September 1 unless firmware updated

There is no 'my way or the highway', just my way

Hackers have boasted that DJI's latest Spark drone firmware update was bypassed in mere hours – including downtime to enjoy the recent solar eclipse.

DJI has announced that its popular Spark consumer drones will be bricked by September 1 unless users download the latest firmware update.

"If the firmware of either the aircraft or the battery is not updated by September 1, Spark will not be able to take off. DJI decided on the option of a mandatory firmware update in order to maximise flight safety and product reliability which we consider as top priorities," said the company in a statement released earlier today.

Drone hacker SasquatchLabs, meanwhile, posted on a popular drone forum to say "we have a confirmed workaround" and that it "took us about an hour cuz of the eclipse viewing." SasquatchLabs is the same person who uncovered DJI's use of hot-patching frameworks that appear to be banned under Apple and Google app store rules.

A DJI representative denied that the firm has changed its stance on mandatory updates. Earlier this month the Chinese company promised it would roll out a "local data mode" allowing continued drone operations without, among other things, downloading new firmware updates. This builds on DJI's earlier rollout of updates that forced users to register an email address and password with DJI to unlock the full functionality of their drones.

The update also includes sundry improvements to the drone's battery management software and improves integration with items such as the DJI Goggles, a set of £500 virtual reality specs for first-person flying. The key update, however, is the one that stops reported in-flight shutdowns of Spark drones.

DJI and its firmware updates have a chequered history. In the past, users have complained that firmware updates occasionally degrade drone performance rather than improving it – and there are ongoing tensions between the company and its users, thanks to DJI's top-down approach to stopping users from flying drones in places they shouldn't. This approach runs headlong into a significant portion of DJI's user base who believe that buying an item means third parties, including the manufacturer, should not be able to lock the end user out of the device or limit his ability to use his property as he wishes.

In the UK, non-commercial drone operators can only fly within line of sight at heights of up to 400 feet. Various other restrictions exist, in particular on keeping clear of buildings or people, and outside certain areas of prohibited airspace. With the appropriate permissions, commercial operators can increase those minima, and police already have a standing dispensation from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones up to 3km away from the operator. ®

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