Nov 23, 2019

The U.S. takes aim at Chinese drones

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Driven by fears of spying, the U.S. is taking dramatic steps toward weaning local, state and federal agencies off products made by DJI, the Chinese small-drone giant.

Yes, but: The company's defenders say the moves are motivated as much by hard-line politics toward China as an attempt to head off a genuine security threat.

Driving the news: A House bill introduced last week would bar federal agencies from buying Chinese-made drones and drones with certain Chinese components. There's a companion bill in the Senate.

  • The bills are driven by a worry that Beijing could harvest valuable data from drones flying sensitive missions for the U.S., their sponsors say.
  • Last month the Department of the Interior grounded its 800+ drones — all made in China or with Chinese parts — pending review of their data security.

What they're saying: "Under Chinese espionage and national security laws, companies like DJI are required to turn over data to the Chinese government," Sen. Rick Scott (R–Fla.), who sponsored the Senate bill, said in a statement to Axios. "Why take the risk? There are American drone companies that we should be purchasing from. "But to some, the moves to bar DJI from the domestic market smack of politics.

  • "Any allegations about DJI to date are pretty unfounded," says Chris Anderson, founder of 3DR, a Berkeley drone company that was DJI's primary competitor until it shuttered its hardware shop in 2016. It now builds software that works with DJI drones.
  • "Any suggestions that they are already a vessel of the Chinese government are unfounded and unfair — that, I would call political," Anderson says.
  • "It's very obvious that there's a coordinated effort targeting Chinese-headquartered companies and Chinese-manufactured drones," says DJI spokesperson Michael Oldenburg.

Several government studies have cleared some DJI models for government use.

  • In July, the Department of the Interior published one such study. The decision to ground its fleet several months later was an abrupt about-face. A department spokesperson declined to comment on the record on the reversal.
  • Politico obtained an October study published by the Department of Homeland Security that came to a similar conclusion: Some DJI drones, in their current configuration, are safe to use.
  • A separate document from the Office of Management and Budget criticized proposals to bar Chinese drones and recommended establishing cybersecurity standards instead, Politico reported.

The bottom line: Even if DJI drones aren't shoveling sensitive data to Beijing, relying on a strategic adversary to supply a crucial technology is an "obvious fail in a great-power competition," says Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the think tank New America.

  • But closing off the market can raise costs, he says, and bring down product quality.

Go deeper: Searching for the next great American drone company

Go deeper

The wreckage of summer

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We usually think of Memorial Day as the start of the summer, with all of the fun and relaxation that goes with it — but this one is just going to remind us of all of the plans that have been ruined by the coronavirus.

Why it matters: If you thought it was stressful to be locked down during the spring, just wait until everyone realizes that all the traditional summer activities we've been looking forward to are largely off-limits this year.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 5,410,228 — Total deaths: 345,105 — Total recoveries — 2,169,005Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 1,643,499 — Total deaths: 97,722 — Total recoveries: 366,736 — Total tested: 14,163,915Map.
  3. World: White House announces travel restrictions on Brazil, coronavirus hotspot in Southern Hemisphere Over 100 coronavirus cases in Germany tied to single day of church services — Boris Johnson backs top aide amid reports that he broke U.K. lockdown while exhibiting symptoms.
  4. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks headed into Memorial Day weekend Report finds "little evidence" coronavirus under control in most statesHurricanes, wildfires, the flu could strain COVID-19 response
  5. Economy: White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election — Public employees brace for layoffs.
  6. Federal government: Trump attacks a Columbia University study that suggests earlier lockdown could have saved 36,000 American lives.
  7. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

The CDC is warning of potentially "aggressive rodent behavior" amid a rise in reports of rat activity in several areas, as the animals search further for food while Americans stay home more during the coronavirus pandemic.

By the numbers: More than 97,700 people have died from COVID-19 and over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Over 366,700 Americans have recovered and more than 14.1 million tests have been conducted.