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.
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 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.