The U.S. Department of Interior announced Wednesday that it would ground it’s fleet of DJI drones. The decision, which is the result of congressional pressure, is the latest move in the argument over banning government use of technology based solely upon “country of origin”: a direct blow to Chinese manufacturers.
The Ban on Chinese Manufactured Drones
The proposed ban on Chinese-manufactured drones stems from legislation currently under discussion in Congress. As the U.S. trade war with China heats up, legislation has appeared proposing that no drones manufactured in countries deemed “non-cooperative” may be purchased by the U.S. government, citing data security concerns. The two pieces of legislation proposed are the American Drone Security Act in the Senate, and the Drone Origin Security Enhancement Act in the House. The Senate version would limit all government agencies from purchasing Chinese drone technology, the House version refers only to the Department of Homeland Security.
Chinese-founded DJI, the largest global drone manufacturer, denies strenuously that data gathered by DJI drones is at risk: and has struggled to respond to security concerns which do not refer to any technical standards or specific technology gaps. The legislation represents a move by the U.S. government that the U.S. press largely refers to as “getting the Huwei treatment,” a reference to the blacklisted Chinese telecom company: recent months have seen legislators proposing closer examination or bans on Chinese video app TikTok and others. In a statement concerning the American Drone Security Act, DJI officials said “banning or restricting the use of drone technology based on where it is made is fear-driven policy not grounded in facts or reality.”
DJI and the Department of the Interior
The U.S. Department of Interior move to down its fleet of about 800 drones is significant. The Department of the Interior (DOI) is tasked with maintaining public lands, and has adopted drone technology widely to help monitor land and deal with firefighting efforts, flood management, dam inspections, and tracking of endangered species. Fortune reports that the entirety of DOI’s fleet have Chinese manufactured parts, and at least 15% are manufactured by DJI: downing the fleet means halting critical programs.
DJI has long partnered with the Department and collaborated on finding a solution to the problem. DJI worked with the DOI on a 15-month long study to determine if security gaps existed, and how they might be addressed. The result of that study was DJI’s “Government Edition” offering and a decision by DJI to do some manufacturing in the U.S. Satisfied with the results of the study, DOI has previously resisted halting the use of Chinese-manufactured drones.
Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), a sponsor of the American Drone Security Act and a staunch opponent to Chinese manufacturing, along with other congress members, have brought pressure to bear on the department pending the passage of the proposed Drone Security legislation.
Wednesday, DOI spokesperson Melissa Brown delivered the following statement to The Verge: “Secretary Bernhardt is reviewing the Department of the Interior’s drone program. Until this review is completed, the Secretary has directed that drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components be grounded unless they are currently being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.”
“Following many conversations between my office and the Interior Department, I’m glad to see the Department has seen the light and reversed course,” said Scott in a statement. “We should not, under any circumstances, put American national security at risk by using taxpayer dollars to purchase Chinese tech.”
“We are aware the Department of Interior has decided to ground its entire drone program and are disappointed to learn of this development,” a DJI spokesperson told The Verge in a statement. “As the leader in commercial drone technology, we have worked with the Department of Interior to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA. We will continue to support the Department of Interior and provide assistance as it reviews its drone fleet so the agency can quickly resume the use of drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”
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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