A proposed drone bill that would ban some U.S. government agencies from purchasing drones manufactured in certain countries – including China – has unanimously passed the House Homeland Security Committee.
What Agencies Would Be Prevented from Purchasing Chinese Drones?
The “Drone Origin Security Enhancement Act” , or H.R. 4753, is the House version of the Senate’s “American Drone Security Act,” S.2502. The bill would prevent some government agencies from purchasing drones based solely on their country of manufacture and without regard to any particular technical issue. There is a difference between the two bills, however: S.2502 would “ban the Federal procurement of certain drones,” while H.R. 4753 would “prohibit the Secretary of Homeland Security from operating or procuring foreign-made unmanned aircraft systems…” Homeland Security, created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, is comprised of 22 agencies: including the Coast Guard, the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (which includes the Border Patrol), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (which includes Homeland Security Investigations), the Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It does not include agencies responsible for overseas military actions, such as the Army.
GovTrack provides the same summary for both versions of the bill:
The American Security Drone Act would prevent the U.S. from purchasing any drones or “unmanned aircraft systems” from a nation identified as a national security threat. That would include China and Iran, and would also include:
- Any nation considered under the “influence or control” of China or the Communist Party of China, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security.
- Any nation classified as a “national security risk” by the Department of Homeland Security.
- Any country that is “subject to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government,” according to the Director of National Intelligence.
The legislation would also require any federal agencies currently using drones from such hostile foreign nations to cease within 180 days of enactment.
The main target of the bill is China, which hits drone manufacture DJI. DJI holds by some estimates more than 70% of drone market share in the U.S. While DJI has not pursued government contracts, with the exception of the government edition developed in collaboration with the Department of the Interior, their products have often been purchased as an inexpensive and effective tool for general government use.
The Devil in the Details: Radios, Cameras, and Gimbals?
Some details of the bill could have very far reaching consequences for the drone ecosystem. The definition of a foreign manufactured drone is broad:
The Secretary of Homeland Security may not operate, provide financial assistance for, or enter into or renew a contract for the procurement of—
(1) an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that— (A) is manufactured in a covered foreign country or by a corporation domiciled in a covered foreign country; (B) uses flight controllers, radios, data transmission devices, cameras, or gimbals manufactured in a covered foreign country or by a corporation domiciled in a covered foreign country; (C) uses a ground control system or operating software developed in a covered foreign country or by a corporation domiciled in a covered foreign country; or (D) uses network connectivity or data storage located in or administered by a corporation domiciled in a covered foreign country; or
(2) a system manufactured in a covered foreign country or by a corporation domiciled in a covered foreign country for the detection or identification of covered unmanned aircraft systems.
Because of the dominance of Chinese manufacturing, limiting all devices including cameras and gimbals could be problematic for many users and manufacturers, even if they aren’t using a Chinese-manufactured platform.
Secondly, the term “provide financial assistance for” could also create a major problem for local first responder departments, even though they are far removed from any military actions, depending upon how the definition of “federal government” or “Secretary of Homeland Security” plays out. Many local first responders that rely upon federal assistance have already invested in fleets of DJI equipment: replacing them could represent a hardship that would put first responder programs back by several years.
Comments from the leader of the bill, Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), indicate that China is the direct target of the bill.
“We’re seeing the impact drones have on foreign relations play out in real time,” said Crenshaw. “This technology continues to pioneer a new frontier, but we cannot ignore the threats it poses to the homeland. Our bill ensures American drone technology will be free from Chinese influence, which is crucial because it’s been demonstrated time after time that we cannot trust Chinese technology in sensitive national security hardware.”
Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) who co-sponsored S. 2502 said upon the introduction of the bill: “There are nations around the world, like China, that are actively building up their militaries to compete with America. China is STEALING our technology and intellectual property, yet the U.S. Government continues to buy critical technology, like drones, with American tax dollars from Chinese companies backed by their government. For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to China and allowed their technology into some of the most critical operations of the U.S. Government. This has to stop. The American Security Drone Act protects our information and national security by prohibiting the federal government and our military from buying drones manufactured in countries that are our adversaries.”
DJI: “Require Technology Providers to Meet Clear Standards”
DJI responded to the Committee move with the following statement:
Today the House Homeland Security Committee advanced legislation that would prevent some federal workers from using the world’s most innovative, efficient and broadly deployed drone technology simply because of where it is made. We are deeply disappointed in this move because it broadly and unfairly targets technology manufactured in China and would prevent the Department of Homeland Security from using the industry’s most advanced drone and drone-detection technology – which it already relies on – to support vital operations. Independent cybersecurity investigations have proven our drones do not automatically send flight data to any third party including DJI and we give all users full control over the data they collect as well as tools to manage where it is stored and how it is shared. The most effective solution would require technology providers to meet clear standards for functionality, safety, and security before government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, can use drone technology in their operations. We urge Congress to work with government agencies, drone operators, and industry experts to develop these standards on drone technology instead of a misguided country of origin restriction.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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