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The U.S. takes aim at Chinese drones

Illustration of a Chinese flag with drones in place of stars
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