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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

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

2 hours ago - World

Australian PM pledges $700M for climate change-threatened Great Barrier reef

A green sea turtle is flourishing among the corals at Lady Elliot island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Friday a AU$1 billion ($703 million) investment plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

Why it matters: The nine-year plan for projects including water quality improvement, reef conservation and supporting some 64,000 tourism jobs comes months ahead of this year's federal election. It has been criticized by scientists and environmental groups for failing to tackle climate change.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.