The United States Department of the Interior (DoI) is preparing to enact a new policy that would limit the use of drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles made overseas. The new order stems from a fear that the information the drones collect may be “valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments,” particularly the People’s Republic of China
The Interior Department has a fleet of approximately 800 drones, all of which were made in China or had parts from China. In October, the Department temporarily suspended the use of Chinese-manufactured drones, such as those from DJI. However, the new order makes the ban permanent, with some exceptions for firefighting and other emergencies. The United States military has also been reducing its use of drones manufactured abroad. The government had been working with DJI on drones that would not transfer any data to DJI servers, but the project was abandoned.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that Chinese drones, including those made by DJI, send data back to their parent company, where the Chinese government has access to it. “The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data,” the Department of Homeland Security stated.
Carol Danko, spokesperson for the Department of the Interior said: “[d]rones are important to critical Department of the Interior missions, such as combating wildfires and conducting life-saving search and rescue operations; however, we must ensure that the technology used for these operations is such that it will not compromise our national security interests.”
“[d]rones are important to critical Department of the Interior missions, such as combating wildfires and conducting life-saving search and rescue operations; however, we must ensure that the technology used for these operations is such that it will not compromise our national security interests.”
The DoI used the now-grounded drones to surveil at protected lands, monitor species, dams, and floods, as well as fight forest fires. DoI employees have stated that the restrictions have “weakened their ability to survey erosion, monitor endangered species, and inspect dams.” Further, the DoI estimated it saved $14 million in 2018 because it used drones instead of helicopters or planes; it is also safer for workers.
“This decision makes clear that the US government’s concerns about DJI drones, which make up a small portion of the DOI fleet, have little to do with security and are instead part of a politically motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits,” a DJI spokesperson for DJI said. “The security of our products designed specifically for the DOI and other US government agencies have been independently tested and validated by US cybersecurity consultants and US federal agencies including the Department of Interior and the Department of Homeland Security.”
The order stated that the ban will remain “until its provisions are converted to the Departmental Manual or until it is amended, superseded, or revoked, whichever occurs first.” Other government departments may also start grounding their foreign-manufactured drones as part of a government-wide reform.