Editor’s note: Left unstated by the article is that American analogues to the simple, straightforward, inexpensive, commercial drones simply do not exist, which is why US Special Forces are still relying on Chinese mini drones they have been banned from using since 2018.
The military’s use of waivers and work-arounds comes as the Pentagon seeks to recruit investors into manufacturing American-made small drones to provide an alternative to the Chinese models.
A new Pentagon project dubbed the “Trusted Capital Marketplace” (TCM) involves hosting a series of DOD job fairs in various tech-heavy cities to meet with private capital investors in order to encourage American investment in the defense industry. The first fair is set for October.
The federal agency responsible for maintaining America’s vast federal lands, is halting the use of non-essential Chinese-made drones, following pressure from members of the US Congress amid a widening tech stand-off between the world’s two-biggest economies.
In a reversal on Wednesday, the department said in a statement to Bloomberg News that it would stop flying all non-essential Chinese drones pending a review of the program. In a statement on Thursday, DJI said it was “disappointed to learn of this development”.
The Department of Interior had previously resisted making this move in recent months. In July, it announced that it had completed a 15-month review of its drone program. That review recommended strategies for making sure data did not leak, but allowed for the continued use of DJI drones.
The agency said in a statement that “drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components” would be “grounded” except for “emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or priority.”
There is Chinese hardware in all of the department’s drones. It did not cite a specific reason for the change.
The move comes amid ongoing trade and tech tensions between China and the US and as members of Congress grow increasingly concerned about American reliance on Chinese technology – whether that means drones made by DJI, or networking equipment made by Chinese network gear giant Huawei Technologies.
“We are aware the Department of Interior is conducting a review to assess its entire drone program and are disappointed to learn of this development,” said a China-based spokeswoman for DJI on Thursday. “As the leader in commercial drone technology, we have worked with the Department of Interior to create safe and secure drone technology that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity assessments, and experts at Nasa.”
It’s unclear whether the partial halt will satisfy a bipartisan group of Senators who in September introduced legislation to force the department to stop using Chinese-made drones. The primary sponsors were Florida Senator Rick Scott, a Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
“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.”
The Department of Defense had stopped buying commercial drones pending review and the Department of Homeland Security has issued a warning about Chinese-made drones. The National Defense Authorisation Act included language that would ban the sale of Chinese drones for military use.
The Interior Department manages a fleet of 810 unmanned aircraft systems, of which 121, or 15 per cent, are made by DJI. The rest of its fleet was either made in China or have Chinese parts, a spokeswoman said, though she did not provide an exact number.
The DJI spokeswoman added that the company would “continue to support the Department of Interior and provide any assistance we can as it reviews its drone fleet and so the agency can quickly resume the use of its drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”
On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) grounded nearly its entire fleet of dronesfearing the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are mostly made in China, might pose a threat to U.S. national security.
The DOI, which is responsible for maintaining federal land, uses a fleet of 810 drones to help in tasks such as monitoring floods and fires, inspecting dams and property, and tracking endangered species. At least 15% of the drones used by the DOI are manufactured entirely by Shenzhen-based DJI, the world’s largest supplier of drones, while the remainder are all made in China or contain China-made parts.
U.S. lawmakers have been lobbying government departments, to abandon Chinese made drones, fearing the UAVs could be sending data—such as images and geofence locations—to the Chinese government. In July, after resisting pressure to simply blockade Chinese tech, the DOI concluded a 15-month long review and announced it had developed strategies to ensuring drone data didn’t leak.
Last month, however, Senators introduced a new bill—the American Security Drone Act 2019—that would force all federal departments to stop using Chinese drones. Perhaps preemptively, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced Wednesday that all drones not currently being used for emergency measures‚ such as combating wildfires, would be grounded pending further review.
“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,” a DOI spokesperson said in a statement.
The DOI’s drone-grounding is the latest move from the U.S. government to push out Chinese tech. China telecoms manufacturer Huawei has faced a number of roadblocks in the U.S. including, most recently, being placed on the Department of Commerce’s “entity” list, which prevents U.S. companies from selling to the Chinese phone maker.
Early this month, the White House placed 28 more Chinese companies on the blacklist, including China’s most promising A.I. firms, Sensetime and Megvii. The U.S. government’s apparent vendetta against Chinese tech has intensified as the trade war—a key complaint of which is China’s use of “forced technology transfers” to gain expertise—drags on.
Responding to news of the DOI’s no-fly policy, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang urged Washington to “stop abusing the concept of national security” and provide a non-discriminatory atmosphere for Chinese companies.
Meanwhile DJI said it was “disappointed” by the development but would “continue to support the Department of Interior and provide any assistance we can as it reviews its drone fleet and so the agency can quickly resume the use of its drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”
Source: Fortune Magazine