There’s No Substitute for Chinese Drones (and That’s a Problem)
Grounding DJI products is already causing severe issues.
Whenever you hear the tell-tale whining buzz of a drone, anywhere in the world, you’re probably hearing a sound made in China.
Whenever you hear the tell-tale whining buzz of a drone, anywhere in the world, you’re probably hearing a sound made in China.
Back in 2006, Chinese technology company DJI created the very first cheap, off-the shelf drones that even poorly coordinated amateurs could use to shoot stunning video and create high-quality maps. Fast forward to today, and DJI has become the overwhelming market leader in a civilian drone industry that largely exists thanks to its work, supplying more than 70 percent of the planet’s drone users with vast quantities of high-quality, dirt-cheap, and elegantly designed little flying robots. And it’s not just DJI: China has become the global hub of the consumer drone industry, home to both DJI’s most successful competitors and the factories that make most of the electronic parts that around the world, from the United States to Ukraine, depend on.
Now, a host of U.S. federal and state lawmakers, warning of Chinese interference, are introducing legislation cracking down on the DJI aircraft used by an overwhelming majority of U.S. government drone programs. And American drone pilots in fields ranging from search and rescue to agriculture to scientific research, painfully aware that they lack good or affordable alternatives to Chinese products, are getting nervous.
Take it from Dave Merrick, the director of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program and the Center for Disaster Risk Policy at Florida State University, who has spent years training hundreds of students to use drones to make maps during disasters. Merrick’s drone-mapping team constantly deploys to assist disaster responders, from documenting the extent of Hurricane Irma’s destruction to creating 3D maps of the effects of the collapse of the Surfside condominium building.
But today, Merrick’s Chinese drone-heavy fleet is mostly grounded, thanks to recent action by the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the state-approved drones he’s managed to purchase simply aren’t as good. “We’re hamstringing public safety to appease some amorphous concerns about Chinese spying,” Merrick said. “We’re already seeing smaller state agencies, and fiscally constrained counties, walking away from [drones] altogether. They can’t afford to purchase anything legal.”
And he’s worried about the future as yet another hurricane season rolls into Florida. “I’m not looking forward to using non-DJI quadcopters in the next event,” Merrick said. “Everything is going to take longer and cost more.”
U.S. hostility toward DJI drones, like other Chinese technology, has been in the works for a long time. Since 2017, the U.S. government has taken an ever more hardline stance toward DJI, citing fears about cybersecurity, illicit Chinese spying, and the company’s level of enmeshment with the Chinese state itself. In 2017, members of the Department of Defense were banned from using DJI products after it came out that some service members frustrated by expensive and crash-happy official military products—including, allegedly, U.S. special operators in Syria—had turned to DJI drones instead. The same year, DJI was officially blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department because of its technologies’ use in China’s Uyghur detention camps. The move kept DJI drones legally on sale but banned U.S. companies from exporting their products for DJI use.
As U.S. government suspicions toward DJI grew, bolstered by the Trump administration’s strong anti-China stance, leadership at the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to ground the agency’s entire hundreds-strong, DJI-heavy drone fleet in 2019, shutting down a once-promising program engaged in everything from fire-spotting to scientific research. (The program is flying again today, but operates at a much smaller scale). Although the Department of Defense released a short roster of approved U.S. and European drone makers, known as the Blue UAS (unmanned aerial systems) list, in August 2020, many government drone users complained that the approved aircraft cost vastly more than Chinese-made options, had fewer features, and still contained Chinese-made component parts. Despite these criticisms, in early 2021, the U.S. General Services Administration announced it would be buying drones for government purposes from only the Blue UAS list from then on.
Soon after, the hopes of DJI users were bolstered when the Pentagon, after carrying out an audit of DJI’s specially made high-security Government Edition drones, announced the aircraft were safe and “recommended for use” (conclusions similar to those drawn by Booz Allen Hamilton in an independent 2020 DJI security audit)—and then dashed to the ground again the next month, when a second Pentagon announcement stated the release of the earlier audit report was unauthorized and DJI products still constituted a threat to national security.
That summer, Florida went even further: DeSantis signed Senate Bill 44, a rule that both expanded the legal scope of police drone use and banned Florida governmental agencies from using any drone not on a still-to-be-written list. When the list did come out at the end of 2021, just five drone makers were on it, in a perfect copy of the Department of Defense’s own, aforementioned Blue UAS list—and DJI, still the overwhelming favorite of U.S. government drone pilots, wasn’t.
Despite vocal protests from a host of Florida government drone users, including accusations of political favoritism towards Blue UAS-approved drone companies, the ban went into effect in early 2023. More than 1,800 Chinese-made drones used by programs ranging from police to mosquito control, worth millions of taxpayer-subsidized dollars, were immediately grounded across the state. While Florida law enforcement agencies—citing issues that included an approved drone spontaneously bursting into flames in an officer’s car—were able to extract $25 million from state lawmakers to replace their aircraft, other government drone users, including state university researchers and firefighters, received no such financial support.
Now, other states, including Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas, have introduced their own anti-Chinese-drone legislation. They’re joined by federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. One recent anti-Chinese-drone effort is helmed by Reps. Elise Stefanik and Mike Gallagher, whose new Countering CCP (Chinese Communist Party) Drones Act would counter what they evocatively if nonsensically call “the national security threat of TikTok, but with wings” by adding the drones to the Federal Communications Commission Covered List—preventing them from using U.S. communications infrastructure, such as radio, and thus effectively banning them from the U.S. market entirely.
While this sweeping law is unlikely to pass this year, other efforts, more tightly targeted at government drone users, have a better shot at making it through. A number of senators, including Marco Rubio, Mitt Romney, and Mark Warner, have signed onto the American Security Drone Act of 2023, which would ban federal government drone pilots from using aircraft from countries (such as China) identified as national security threats and prohibit using any federal funds, including those given out via contracts and grants, to buy such aircraft. Another new bill, from Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Warner, Stemming The Operation of Pernicious and Illicit (STOP Illicit) Drones Act, targets the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by banning it from providing federal funds to or using drone products from countries, including China, that are part of what the senators have dubbed the “New Axis of Evil.”
While there’s still no concrete evidence that DJI drones are beaming highly sensitive U.S. government information directly into the clutches of the CCP, DJI products (and other Chinese drones) indisputably are a security risk. In 2017, security researcher Kevin Finisterre discovered a major DJI security flaw that allowed him to access highly sensitive customer data on the company’s servers, including passport and driver’s license information, photographs uploaded by users, and flight logs from accounts that appeared to belong to military and government workers. (DJI threatened to sue Finisterre when he submitted the issue to its bug bounty program, prompting him to go public with his findings).
More recent security analyses, by Finisterre and others, proved that DJI’s public claims about its proprietary DroneID system being safely encrypted were false and that safety features in the drones themselves were easy for hackers to bypass. Although we still lack smoking-gun proof that DJI, other Chinese drone makers, or the Chinese government have taken harmful advantage of Chinese products’ remarkable global reach, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t, or that they won’t do so in the future.
DJI has also misrepresented the extent of its connections to the Chinese government. Although the privately held company claimed it didn’t receive direct investment from Chinese government sources, in early 2022 journalists found four Chinese government companies had, in fact, invested in DJI—including one firm dedicated to partnerships between the military and private enterprise. While a DJI spokesman said shareholders (other than the founders) “do not participate in the company’s management and operation,” the U.S. Department of Defense wasn’t convinced. In fall 2022, the Pentagon placed DJI on its blacklist of “Chinese military companies.” Further, even fully private Chinese companies have no ability to protect themselves from government interference; under both Chinese law and routine practice the CCP has the ability to seize control or mandate decisions at private firms, with no recourse.
But banning DJI, or Chinese drones in general, makes a big problem. It isn’t like switching from Samsung smartphones to Apple, or swapping out Coke for Pepsi. That’s because there simply is no comparable U.S.- or European-made replacement for DJI products, no off-the-shelf solution that comes close to matching DJI when it comes to affordability, availability, ease-of-use, and (in many cases) quality.
Although U.S. and European drone companies went head-to-head with DJI in the heady, first days of the consumer drone boom in the early 2010s, almost all of them eventually fizzled out, felled both by their lack of proximity to cheap electronic components and, in far too many cases, downright lousy products. The Western drone companies that remain and have received U.S. government approval via the Blue UAS list have almost all shifted toward making small numbers of very expensive drones designed for money-flush law enforcement and military customers.
While these aircraft might be handy for breaking into buildings during a SWAT team operation, they’re often all but useless for the dizzying array of other, less ethically fraught things that people use small drones for, from documenting how quickly glaciers are melting in the Cascades to swiftly mapping the swathe of destruction left behind by yet another Gulf Coast hurricane. Many programs simply won’t be able to afford officially approved drones, while others won’t be able to collect the data they need with them. And while drone skeptics may conclude fewer creepy camera-copters in the air is a good thing, they, too, are missing something.
These restrictions targeting cheap Chinese-made products won’t actually keep privacy-violating drones out of the hands of deep-pocketed, powerful law enforcement agencies: That’s the exact job most all of the officially approved Blue UAS drones are designed to do. What these rules likely will do is make it much harder for U.S. government and grant-funded agricultural researchers, forest fire-fighters, mosquito control specialists, and university wildlife scientists (among many others) to take advantage of small drones’ revolutionary ability to capture really good aerial data at a really low price without putting human beings in danger. Applying the same stringent drone security standards to both conservationists studying rare ferrets in the middle of nowhere and FBI agents carrying out secretive operations in sensitive areas may sound like a great idea to lawmakers on paper, but in practice it may well end up doing more harm than good.
There’s perhaps no better example of the conundrum presented by cheap Chinese drones—their massive usefulness and massively controversial status—than the hordes of the things hovering like robot dragonflies over the battlefields of Ukraine. While DJI stopped official sales to Russia and Ukraine in April 2022, reminding the world in pointed press statements that it makes aircraft exclusively for civilian purposes, that’s not how things have worked out in practice.
Today, thousands of DJI aircraft constantly enter both Russia and Ukraine via unofficial channels and volunteer networks, which can easily acquire the drones from consumer electronics retailers in other countries. (Kazakhstan is a particularly popular middleman for drones bound for Russia). Then they’re put to work on the battlefield for everything from surveillance to dropping grenades, tasks at which DJI’s foldable flagship Mavic 3 is so adept that, to the company’s abject horror, it was deemed “a true symbol of modern warfare” by Yuri Baluyevsky, former chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces.
DJI has so far declined to use its ability to remotely restrict the range of its drones—something it did in Syria in 2017, likely out of fear of global outrage one way or another—on the Ukrainian battlefield. But it’s a move the company could make, and both Ukraine and Russia are painfully aware of the possibility. They’re also aware DJI drones are consumer-grade products highly vulnerable to electronic warfare attacks that must constantly be hacked and patched to prevent leading artillery strikes right to their location as soon as they’re switched on. And yet, despite furious local research and development efforts in Ukraine, despite Putin’s personal commitment to the quadcopter-building cause, the skies over Ukraine’s battlefields are still filled with Chinese drones.
Though most discussion of the risks posed by DJI focuses on China, the problem is bigger than that. As Ukraine and Russia are painfully aware, DJI is also a security risk because it’s a single company that has almost complete control over a crucial civilian technology. And in this respect, DJI’s nationality is pretty much irrelevant. Allowing any single company from any single country a near monopoly over a vitally important industry is dangerous, whichever the companies and countries in question happen to be. And yet, while the DJI problem is real, it won’t be solved with blunt-force instruments.
The United States can be smarter than that.
First, U.S. lawmakers should reconsider fast-moving and total bans on Chinese drones and think about whether it actually makes sense to apply the same rules to all drone users, from police to university ecology researchers. The United States needs to know more about what drone security and privacy risks look like in the real world, and moving away from DJI products represents a great chance for the U.S. government to support more research into what drone data harms actually look like. If lawmakers do decide to ban Chinese drones, they should set reasonable phase-out periods for existing aircraft and provide financial support for buying new aircraft to everyone—not just police.
U.S. regulators and lawmakers need to start paying much more attention to the vast, innovative world of drone users that operate outside of the police or military, and they need to start taking those users into account when they draft new drone legislation. The Blue UAS list was supposed to be tightly focused around Department of Defense drone users working in sensitive contexts and paid little attention to mapping or videography by design; if the list is going to be used as the central standard for all government drones, then it must include more aircraft that meet the needs of pilots who don’t work in security.
U.S. government strategy at all levels must stop its pigeonholed focus on supporting companies that make drones for cops and soldiers and instead start funneling more money and support toward companies that truly want to challenge DJI’s dominance in other vital sectors, from map-making to disaster response to shooting movies. The government should also make it easier for the drone industry to work directly with public agencies and universities to test new drone technology.
Some U.S. lawmakers are heading in the right direction. One new Senate bill, the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023, would create a new FAA office to help support U.S. competition with Chinese drone-makers; and the Senate recently held hearings on the National Drone and Advanced Air Mobility Initiative Act, which would support U.S. civilian drone research. While challenging China’s massive structural advantages when it comes to the cheap electronics and chips used in drones is going to be a much bigger lift, it’s an effort well worth making, especially in light of increasing Chinese saber-rattling toward Taiwan.
Cheap and high-quality drones have changed the world in the last decade. Thanks to these little flying robots, people no longer need vast budgets and highly specialized aviation skills to explore the world from the air—and Chinese-made drones have played an essential role in bringing this new era of air-mindedness about. Now, the world needs to act to ensure that the drone’s-eye view remains accessible to everyone.
Faine Greenwood is an expert on unmanned aerial vehicles, technology in humanitarian aid, remote sensing, spatial data, and data policy and ethics. Greenwood's current research work centers on civilian drone technology and the new opportunities and operational and ethical challenges that drones and the spatial data that they collect presents to people affected by disaster and conflict.
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