UPDATED: US ban on Chinese drone parts makes it harder to fight fires

A decision by the US Department of the Interior to stop buying drones with Chinese-made parts has hampered pre-emptive fire-fighting efforts in 2020. The news, contained in an internal memo written earlier this year, points out a clear downside to the controversial policy.

Tension between the US government and some Chinese technology companies has increased during the past 18 months of the Trump administration. In the case of drones, the latest round began with concerns raised by the US Department of the Interior, which has a significant and widespread drone program. In the fall of 2019, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt warned of concerns around data security, with drones containing Chinese electronics, and instructed the department to pause the use of its fleet of 800 drones. The department dispatched drones only in emergencies after that point, with very few flights taking place.

Then, in late January, Bernhardt signed an order that effectively grounded the fleet. In fact, the DOI issued a statement with the news:

Drones 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. After an ongoing review of Interior’s drone program, Secretary Bernhardt issued a Secretary’s Order today, affirming the temporary cessation of non-emergency drones while we ensure that cybersecurity, technology, and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed. Drone use for non-emergency operations will remain grounded while the Department of the Interior reviews the possibility of threats and ensures a secure, reliable, and consistent drone policy that advances our mission while keeping America safe. Drone operations will continue to be allowed in approved situations for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.

Carol Danko, DOI Spokesperson

No more purchases, either

With the new freeze on flights there was also a freeze on purchasing of any new drones that were either Chinese-made or contained Chinese-made electronics. In fact, at the time Bernhardt issued his order in January, not a single one of the Department’s 810 drones was fully built with parts from outside of China. In fact, it’s believed the vast majority of those drones were DJI products.

So, there were no new purchases — and no routine drone flights as part of regular operations. That meant that certain exercises, including using drones to plan and monitor controlled burning for fire suppression, could be carried out.

Reduction in controlled burns

Controlled burns, where swaths of land are intentionally set ablaze to reduce the risk of any future fires spreading in those areas, are a considerable part of the overall fire suppression and management protocol. Except the ban on Chinese drones really messed up with these plans. And that’s where the memo comes in.

The internal memo came from the department’s Office of Aviation Services earlier this year. It predicted that by the end of 2020, the department will have carried out only one-quarter of the controlled burns it would have had under normal circumstances. Plans in place prior to the ban would have meant the department purchased an additional 17 drones, according to a report in the Financial Times.

[The department’s current fleet] must expand to meet the demand of preventative measures mandated for the reduction of wildfire via vegetation reduction.

Department of Interior Memo via the Financial Times

Barnhardt’s order allows for drones to be used for controlled burns. However, because the Department did not proceed with its purchase of IGNIS systems, which work with heavy-lift machines like DJI’s M600 Matrice, just 28% of planned controlled burns will take place by the end of 2020.

If you’ve never seen the IGNIS system, here’s how it works:

Great balls of fire: The IGNIS system

DJI weighs in

Of course, DJI has already been hurt by the Department’s actions. And today on social media it fired back. DJI’s head of communications for North America, Adam Lisberg, dropped a Tweet that’s just as incendiary as some of those IGNIS balls:

Adam has a point. The risk by not deploying these drones for controlled burns is arguably far more harmful than putting them in the air.

This issue over Chinese technology isn’t going away — especially under the current administration. We’ll continue to keep a close watch on this issue.

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