More than a year after the U.S. Interior Department grounded hundreds of Chinese-made drones it was having to track wildfires and track dams, volcanoes and wildlife, it is starting to seem like they will not be flying again any time soon — if ever.
A measure moving through Congress would inflict a last-minute ban on U.S. government purchases of drones manufactured or assembled in China. It reflects bipartisan concerns that devices made by companies such as DJI, which is based in Shenzhen, China, can ease Chinese spying on infrastructure.
However a ban could cause problems for government users, since DJI dominates the worldwide market for the small, low-altitude drones used by hobbyists, photographers, and many companies and authorities. There aren’t many affordable and dependable options, stated Carrick Detweiler, the CEO of Drone Amplified, that offers fire suppression payloads into drones operated by Interior and the U.S. Forest Service.
“Everybody I talk to in the national government is moving away from DJI whether these bills are passed,” said Detweiler, who’s also a computer science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Everybody wants a U.S. system to be there and to operate, it is just that the U.S. drone industry was killed off by DJI a decade ago. It’s likely to take three or four years before we’re at parity.”
The proposed ban was recently folded into the wider American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which was nearing passing from the Senate until it was suddenly postponed Friday. Some have started to phase them out completely.
But the ban could create different headaches. Since it would also ban federal funding from being used to buy or operate Chinese drones, it could hit police departments that rely on federal help to field new gear. The Department of Homeland Security started stopping such grants for Chinese-made drones this past year.
The Interior Department said that it flew over 11,000 drone flights at 2019 before temporarily grounding its drones over cybersecurity concerns at the end of the year. Its drone application was mostly on hiatus since then, except for some emergency flights that are granted a waiver. In March, it started to make it simpler to fly crisis assignments for wildland fire response and search-and-rescue surgeries.
Inside the government, the drone banning has met some resistance from officials keen to receive their existing drone fleets back into the atmosphere for missions which don’t need secrecy. Some trade groups have argued that any drone restrictions should be determined by specific security standards, not their country of source.
The report analyzed software used to operate DJI’s”Government Edition” drones plus some fixes which were made to address information leakage vulnerabilities found in earlier audits.
That May 6 document also made a big endorsement.
Prater declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to talk to the press. The Interior Department also declined to comment. In a declaration, DJI spokesperson Adam Lisberg called the report summary”the strongest confirmation to date” of the safety and security of the company’s drones.
External experts, nevertheless, panned the Pentagon conclusions. “It is clear that this software wasn’t designed for safety in any way,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.
Mike Monnik, an Australian specialist, said there is a”dangerous” risk that external agents could pull data off the drones given their most unfixed applications issues. Monnik, the chief technology officer at DroneSec, a firm that researches drone cybersecurity vulnerabilities, included that cutting off the drones entirely from the net could ensure the safety of their data.
National security concerns concerning DJI drones have lingered because 2017, when a document from U.S. customs police alleged the drones probably provided China using critical infrastructure and law enforcement data. DJI has repeatedly denied the allegations, but political concerns about Chinese technologies accelerated amid President Donald Trump’s wider trade war against China.
Last year, the Pentagon started promoting American-made — and much more costly — alternatives to DJI. The Defense Department in August gave a seal of approval to California drone-maker Skydio, French tech firm Parrot and three other companies to provide U.S.-manufactured drones to agencies throughout the federal government. But since then, the Pentagon has acknowledged that numerous military-grade drones still pose risks since they rely on components manufactured in China.
In December, the Commerce Department put DJI on a list of blacklisted Chinese companies subject to export restrictions on national security reasons.
DJI has attempted to counter such issues, enabling an online”kill switch” on more drones so that government and commercial users can stop data transmission on sensitive flying assignments. Its products are preferred by many local and regional authorities in the U.S. due to their cost and dependability, but a national ban could damage its reputation among those buyers.
Aftergood said he can see a situation for DJI just in situations where safety isn’t a top concern.
“It is dependent upon other factors like price, performance, life, ease of usage,” Aftergood said. “However, to the extent that security is a controlling variable, you’d want to think twice.”