U.S. government moves restricting agencies access to the massive market of cheap and effective small drones made in China has made it more difficult to fight forest fires that have raged nationwide at unprecedented rates, among other important tasks.
The trend has also created a sharp divide among experts, officials and drone companies. Some feel the cost of such restrictions is too high, while others argue the measures remain justified nonetheless.
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) first announced in October 2019 that it would pause the use of all drones either made in China or with parts originating from China over cybersecurity concerns. In January of last year, the DOI issued Secretariat Order 3379, which temporarily grounded the entirety of its fleet of 800 drones. Since then, new legislation and further restrictions put in place across the government have put the future availability of such systems in question.
The addition of drones to activities such as fighting wildfires, law enforcement activity, traffic safety and wildlife conservation has widely been considered groundbreaking, both in optimizing mission capabilities and safeguarding the lives of personnel who may otherwise be in harm’s way. Some of the most popular models adopted by federal, state and local agencies are produced by DJI, a Shenzhen-based firm that is one of the largest and most popular drone manufacturers both in China and across the globe.
The shift on the once-universally celebrated use of such systems took place under the administration of President Donald Trump, which set out to challenge China and erode the reliance of the United States on its top global competitor’s industry. But now, even as President Joe Biden‘s administration approaches its one-year mark, Trump’s legacy on China lives on in a number of ways.
On Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Director Brendan Carr, who was appointed by Trump, called for further restricting DJI by adding it to the FCC Covered List that identifies products that are deemed “to pose an unacceptable risk to the national security” to the U.S. and disallows them to be purchased using federal dollars.
“DJI drones and the surveillance technology on board these systems are collecting vast amounts of sensitive data—everything from high-resolution images of critical infrastructure to facial recognition technology and remote sensors that can measure an individual’s body temperature and heart rate,” Carr stated said in an FCC press release shared with Newsweek.
“Security researchers have also found that DJI’s software applications collect large quantities of personal information from the operator’s smartphone that could be exploited by Beijing, ” the press release reads. “Indeed, one former Pentagon official stated that ‘we know that a lot of the information is sent back to China from DJI drones.”
As to the FCC’s role in advising on the usage of drones, a spokesperson for Carr’s office said the agency is advised by other parts of the U.S. government, especially those that deal in national security.
“The FCC has a key role in securing America’s communications infrastructure and supply chain, which is why we have previously taken action against entities that pose an unactable national security risk, like Huawei and China Mobile,” the FCC spokesperson told Newsweek.
“Part of our obligation extends to maintaining and ensuring that our Covered List is up to date,” the spokesman said. “Determinations about entities to add to that Covered List will generally require consultations and determinations by national security agencies, and Carr is calling for the FCC to engage those entities in that discussion.”
U.S. intelligence officials have raised the alarm on what they see as potential risks from Chinese drones throughout the course of the Trump administration, beginning in 2017 and culminating in a January 2021 executive order that called for U.S. federal agencies to expedite the removal of Chinese drones from their fleets.
The latest U.S. government warning, however, came under Biden in July, when the Pentagon too said that DJI products “pose potential threats to national security.”
Such accusations are disputed by DJI, which defends its security practices. Its Government Edition products were evaluated by the Idaho National Laboratory at the request of the Department of Homeland Security, and underwent further testing by the information technology company Booz Allen Hamilton and the business advisory firm FTI Consulting, along with other clearances.
“DJI remains deeply disappointed that the Department of the Interior is inexplicably restricting use of our Government Edition products,” DJI Corporate Communication Director Adam Lisberg told Newsweek, “which were developed to meet Interior’s specifications and have been repeatedly validated by cybersecurity experts both inside and outside government.”
Lisberg said the DOI, by its own admission, recognized the added risk of restricting such systems for government usage, a risk that may incur cost to life and property as domestic drone equivalents do not yet match up in terms of capability and cost.
“Interior has said that the lack of easy access to DJI Government Edition drones has hurt its ability to perform its vital mission, has left far more American land vulnerable to wildfire, and has increased the life-and-death risk to frontline wildland firefighters and other personnel,” Lisberg said. “DJI Government Edition drones remain tested, proven, and ready to safely and securely continue their important work.”
The DOI has both privately and publicly expressed concerns associated with losing access to the vast wealth of Chinese drones, especially those capable of engaging in a practice known as “aerial ignition,” in which fires are deliberately set to stem the advance of wildfires.
Using DJI drones, officially called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), firefighters have utilized what is known as the IGNIS system using ping pong-ball-sized spheres loaded with a chemical solution that, when activated via remote-controlled injection, creates flames that can burn up to 75 acres per unit.
“Currently there are no domestically produced UAS available that can integrate the IGNIS system,” an internal memo by the DOI dated May 21, 2020 and obtained by Newsweek states.
The document argues that expanding such IGNIS-compatible capabilities for the DOI is critical, because the alternative is the use of manned aircraft in extremely dangerous flight conditions that have claimed the lives of a number of personnel over the past 16 years.
The maneuvers necessary to conduct aerial ignition via such piloted aircraft do not allow time for safely making a controlled landing in the event of an error or malfunction, nor can such missions be performed at night or in smoky conditions without the use of drones.
“DOI leadership have been granted waivers for aerial ignition requests, using the limited resources available in the current fleet inventory,” the memo reads. “This limited resource must expand to meet the demand of preventative measures mandated for the reduction of wildfire via vegetation reduction (or ‘fuels treatments’).”
“This request provides accountability of reducing the risk of severe accident or death to employees charged with providing preventive wildland fire measures that have historically been served through manned aircraft,” it adds.
To demonstrate the disparity, the paper said that the DOI deployed six IGNIS systems in January and February in the southeast U.S., covering up to 15,226 acres in prescribed burns. However, had the total request of 37 IGNIS systems been received, the document said “conservative modeling projections” suggest that “409,000 acres could have been burned by the end of 2020” and 400 hours of manned aircraft flight “could be avoided.”
In addition to recommending “approval of purchase requests for Ignis aerial ignition systems,” the paper urged “approval of purchasing Government Edition DJI M600 aircraft capable of carrying the payloads, until a practical and feasible replacement aircraft is identified and tested” as well as “training continuity for UAS pilots whose home units purchased Ignis aerial ignition systems.”
Other agencies have also privately published their concerns.
One internal U.S. Geological Survey memo obtained by Newsweek and dated October 2019, issued shortly after the DOI first ordered its China-linked drones out of service, noted the wide array of activities that would not be possible without the use of the drones they had acquired over the past 12 years. These included “time sensitive” projects critical to “protecting lives and livelihoods” such as flood prevention, habitat preservation and agriculture.
For some of the most dangerous missions, the memo expressed that the agency is “concerned about the impact to our hazards missions if this functionality is taken away or made more difficult to procure.”
Another internal document obtained by Newsweek from around this time comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which outlined a wide range of non-emergency activities that have been canceled, including the monitoring of endangered species, prescribed fire activities and projects to prevent aircraft bird strikes.
“There is ample evidence to suggest that the grounding of the Bureau’s UAS Program will have a direct negative effect across Regions and Programs,” the memo said, noting that some of these operations “are time-sensitive and conditional upon the presence of threatened or endangered species and/or current habitat conditions.”
“A lapse in data collection, sensitive species monitoring and critical habitat assessment affects the Service’s ability to confidently and accurately determine natural resource outcomes,” the memo states.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, a DOI spokesperson said that drones were still playing a frontline role in operations, albeit in limited use.
“The Department of the Interior has over 800 drones available that are airworthy,” the DOI spokesperson said. “Drones are still available for emergency use and continue to play an important role, including during wildfires. We have no further updates.”
DJI has long promoted the cooperation it enjoyed with emergency personnel, including firefighters and police officers, in videos containing testimonials on how the company’s products have increased effectiveness across the country, from small towns to major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. And elsewhere on social media, a number of first responder departments continue to independently showcase their DJI drones despite the official ban.
But other parts of the U.S. government continue to fight DJI’s dominance over the drone market. Last December, the Department of Commerce’s End-User Review Committee (ERC) added the company to its Entity List, effectively limiting DJI’s access to controlled U.S. technology on the basis of complaints regarding China’s behavior on the world stage.
“The ERC placed DJI on the Entity List in December of 2020 for activities contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests, specifically that they enabled human rights abuses within China through abusive genetic collection and analysis or high-technology surveillance, and/or facilitated the export of items by China that aided repressive regimes around the world,” a Department of Commerce spokesperson told Newsweek. “DJI remains on the list.”
Now, with drones tied to China under so much scrutiny, the U.S. government and private U.S. companies involved in the production of small UAS, or sUAS, have found an opportunity to attempt to boost the U.S. share of the lucrative and growing market.
The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit has recently announced a new program that “focuses on reducing administrative barriers for onboarding policy compliant, commercial small unmanned aircraft systems.”
“Access to secure and trusted sUAS is essential for national security applications especially on-demand intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance,” Defense Innovation Unit Director Mike Brown told Newsweek. “DIU is leading a holistic effort, called Blue UAS, to rapidly vet and scale commercial UAS platforms from U.S. and allied firms for DoD as well as a broader set of U.S. government users.”
Among the 11 companies with which agreements have already been signed is Skydio, Inc., a California-based firm that in March became the first U.S. drone company to exceed $1 billion in value. The company has used Chinese parts in the past, but welcomed the ban on its DJI competitor and vowed to cut off its own reliance on China.
Today, Skydio CEO Adam Bry said streamlining the supply chain was critical to U.S. national security, and that the trend had begun.
“As small camera drones have expanded in scope from being consumer toys to critical tools for national security, we’re seeing a shift in the market from manual drones made by companies based in China to AI-enabled autonomous drones made in the United States,” Bry told Newsweek.
Such small camera drones “help first responders get critical information in the most dangerous situations – whether it be a firefighter responding to a forest fire or a police officer responding to an armed suspect – without risking lives.”
They also “give our soldiers critical situational awareness on the battlefield, and help Departments of Transportation inspect and maintain their bridges, dams and roads—making inspectors and citizens safer,” Bry said.
“Skydio’s autonomy technology makes drones more useful than ever by making them more intelligent than ever, while meeting demanding cyber and supply chain security standards,” He added. “We’re proud to serve as a trusted drone provider for the Department of Defense and across U.S. agencies at the federal, state and local levels.”
And citing the final report issued by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence issued in March, Bry said that “the AI competition isn’t just a technology competition—it’s a values competition.”
“The companies and countries that lead the way with this new generation of technology will shape its impact on society. That’s especially true for the drone industry,” he said. “The U.S. government wants drones it can trust, and the only way to trust a drone is to trust the company that developed it and the legal framework in which they operate.”
Once a viable system is fielded, however, it remains clear how much more expensive such a model would cost in relation to often far cheaper Chinese rivals, potentially limiting the size of the new fleet.
And some felt the threat posed by DJI drones had been overstated as the U.S.-China relationship underwent one of its most difficult periods in decades. One UAS researcher who wished not to be named said that the existing gap in capabilities meant emergency personnel were now hard-pressed to perform tasks geared toward preventing disasters before they happen.
“Authorizing drones exclusively for emergency use is still a huge impediment to them as they can’t do that kind of disaster risk-reduction research work,” the researcher told Newsweek.
“With respect to the security risk, I’m not losing sleep over it, personally,” the researcher said. “And I’m someone who spends a lot of time worrying about and writing about exploitative uses of personal data by corporations and governments.”
“I don’t find DJI more problematic than many other internet-linked commercial devices or device-makers,” the researcher added, “and I think they’ve shown good faith efforts to rectify issues and demonstrate how data is secured.”