After temporarily grounding its fleet of drones last year, the U.S. Interior Department grounded its drone fleet after issuing an order today to formally adopt a no-fly rule aimed at drones made in China or with Chinese parts. Exceptions will be made for those situations in which drones are needed to respond to natural disasters or other emergencies.

Interior Department grounds drone fleet

Today, the Department of the Interior issued an order that follows the temporary grounding of the department’s drone fleet last year, to formally adopt a no-fly rule aimed at drones made in China or with Chinese parts. Interior officials have acknowledged that all of the about 800 drones in its fleet are made in China or contain parts that are made in China.

The WSJ [paywall] reports that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said his department will grant exceptions for tracking wildfires by air and for emergencies where human safety or property damage are at risk, such as search-and-rescue operations. Drone training flights are also exempt from this new rule.

The decision was made after investigating the potential data security risks from drones, said Mr. Bernhardt. the order doesn’t specifically mention China but department officials are directed to favor domestically-made drones. The concern with foreign-made drones is that the information that is collected by the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could be “valuable to foreign entities, organizations and governments.”

Workers from the department have complained since their drones were temporarily grounded last year that their work to survey erosion, monitor endangered species and inspect dams has been hampered. Other officials have pointed out that in many cases drones are a much safer option to use than sending out a manned aircraft in bad weather or other dangerous conditions.

Mr. Bernhardt said that the department will be “very able to meet its mission without sacrifice” and that he hopes that domestic drone manufacturers will be able to replace foreign drone makers such as DJI.

For reference, the Interior Department recorded 10,342 drone flights in 2018, which mostly took place in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and California. About twice as many drone flights as took place in 2017. The drone flights saved taxpayers at least $14 million so far.

The WSJ quotes Gary Baumgartner, a former Interior Department firefighter who retired in June, and who helped start the department’s drone program in the mid-2000s and said the new tools were a “game-changer,” and that “it added a huge measure of safety and efficiency.”

Another retired firefighter from the department, Dave Whitmer said that drones could be used in conditions that were too smokey for traditional aircraft. He added that the mood among his former colleagues, whom he still keeps in touch with, has turned somber in recent months.

“Now we are going to be putting people back in harm’s way. It’s a real step back for us,” he said, before adding that a U.S. Forest Service firefighter died in March in a helicopter crash in Texas.

Data security concerns outweigh advantages of Chinese-made drones

However, the safety advantages and cost savings apparently do not weigh up against the data security concerns. This started a few years ago with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warning that it believed that Chinese drone maker DJI was “selectively targeting government and privately owned entities…to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive U.S. data.”

DJI has repeatedly refuted these claims and has said that drone operators can prevent data from being transmitted over the internet. The company even went as far as to develop a special ‘Government Edition‘ that provided even more data security options.

The U.S. military has for the most part already stopped buying DJI drones. And most recently, a bipartisan group of lawmakers had sought to bar federal agencies from buying Chinese made drones and from any other country that was deemed a security risk, altogether. This bill has gained little traction.

The Interior Department was surprised by the temporary drone grounding last year in October. Only a month earlier the department had worked closely together with DJI to develop a drone that would meet all the data security requirements. This resulted in DJI launching the ‘Government Edition‘. The Interior Department has said that it was satisfied with the additional data security measures after 15 months and more than 2,000 drone test flights.

In response to the news of this order today, DJI has released a statement saying that the company “is extremely disappointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) order released today which inappropriately treats a technology’s country of origin as a litmus test for its performance, security and reliability. This action will ground the entire DOI drone program, which relies on drones made with globally sourced components to create the federal government’s largest and most innovative civilian drone fleet. This decision makes clear that the U.S. 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.”

However, Mr. Bernhardt said that meeting with intelligence officials during the fall of last year had convinced him of the need to review the security concerns. Since the temporary grounding in October of last year, Chinese made drones including the ones from DJI have only been used about a dozen times to monitor fires and floods.

What do you think about the order of the Interior Department? Let us know in the comments below.

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