Department of Interior Grounds Drone Fleet

On October 31, the Department of the Interior (DOI) halted 800 drones used to monitor endangered species, inspect federally protected land, monitor dams and floods, and fight forest fires. The drones are mostly made in China and were grounded out of fear of Chinese spying, which could pose a national security threat.

At least 15 percent of the drones used by the DOI are manufactured by DJI, the world’s largest drone supplier based in Shenzhen, China. The rest are either made in China or at least contain Chinese-made parts. The DOI has requested a review into the security risks that the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) pose, specifically to prevent data, such as images, geofence locations, and US infrastructure, from being sent to the Chinese government or otherwise facilitating a security breach or attack.

It is unclear if the grounding was due to a specific incident or simply a result of escalating U.S.-Chinese tensions. DJI claimed that users can turn off the devices’ internet connections and that the Chinese government never asked for access to DJI’s data. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed DJI was “selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within these sectors to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive US data.”

In September, the Senate proposed a bill that would ban the purchase of Chinese-made drones by federal agencies. Other federal agencies, such as the Army and the Department of Homeland Security also spoke about the potential danger and threat of data and security leaks from the use of Chinese drones.

As a result of this potential security threat, “Secretary Bernhardt is reviewing the Department of the Interior’s drone program,” Melissa Brown, spokesperson from the Department of the Interior, said in a statement. “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.”

DJI has assured that their UAVs are secure. “[W]e have worked with the Department of Interior to create a safe and secure drone solution that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity professionals, and experts at NASA,” a DJI spokesperson said. “We will continue to support the Department of Interior and provide assistance as it reviews its drone fleet so the agency can quickly resume the use of drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”

This is the latest development in a trend of American agencies and industries blocking Chinese technology and products. Recently, Chinese telecom company Huawei has been subject to sanction. Additionally, the FCC has proposed a measure to protect the public from spying from China by banning Chinese components in 5G networks.