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Feds moving to ground foreign drones

DJI takes issue

The U.S. Department of the Interior operates nearly 1,000 drones for missions including wildland firefighting, rescue, mapping, and monitoring natural resources. Most of those machines were made in China, which is reason enough, in the view of some officials, to ground them.

A DJI Phantom 4. Photo by Jim Moore.

The Financial Times reported January 12, citing unnamed sources and agency documents, that some officials are concerned that the Chinese government could turn DJI drones into spy-copters, a notion that DJI has hotly disputed in recent years. The pending decision is the latest development in a long-simmering issue that previously prompted the same agency to temporarily ground the drones. The company previously responded to similar concerns on the part of federal agencies that operate DJI equipment by enabling a data privacy mode that allows operators to limit the flow of information, including camera and GPS data, to the internet.

The new policy has not been officially announced or implemented, and a DJI spokesperson told the Financial Times that the underlying concerns are unfounded: “While we have not seen the new policy, we look forward to reviewing the findings of DOI’S comprehensive review of its drone programme, given the lack of credible evidence to support a broad country-of-origin restriction on drone technology.”

The policy push is getting pushback from agency staffers as well, and the newspaper obtained documents showing that some within the agency worry that grounding the majority of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) fleet would compromise important missions and significantly increase the cost of aerial surveillance. DJI is credited with producing more than 70 percent of the world’s civilian drones, and the FAA noted, in a recent rulemaking proposal, that an even higher percentage of drones flown for private and government business in the United States are made by DJI.

Government agencies have long expressed the concern that foreign-made drones, particularly those made by Chinese firms, could be used to transmit sensitive data to unknown persons without the user’s knowledge, and not everyone is persuaded that the data privacy safeguards DJI implemented can guarantee the privacy of the data DJI drones collect. While a handful of U.S. manufacturers are making small drones that can fulfill similar missions, there is some concern that it will take years for DJI’s competitors to match the technological capabilities that DJI has refined since introducing the most popular line of civilian UAS in history.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.

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