The secretary of the US Department of the Interior (DOI) has issued a memo encouraging the purchase of specific US-made drones, including a link to those specific models. It’s the latest in a growing movement toward American-manufactured drones — and away from those made in China.
In late January, the Department of the Interior banned the use of drones that were not made in the USA. This effectively grounded its entire fleet of drones, except for in extraordinary circumstances. Many of those drones, coincidentally, are the US-designed, made-in-China 3D Robotics Solo drones. But the move had broader implications, especially for DJI. That firm sells more drones than any other company on the planet, and many federal agencies have purchased DJI products in the past. Now, under the current administration, there has been a pushback against Chinese-manufactured drones, or drones manufactured elsewhere that contain Chinese-made components.
The rationale is that the US believes there could be security issues with drones that are not manufactured in the US. It’s a position DJI has repeatedly refuted, pointing to external reviews that state its drones do not pose a security risk. The company has also produced DJI “Government Edition” drones that do not connect to the internet.
Now, a new Department of Interior memo has raised the stakes yet again. An email sent to us from DOI press secretary Ben Goldey sets up a memo distributed yesterday by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
The memo outlines clearance to buy American-made small unmanned aircraft systems (referred to as Blue sUAS), where there are needs to do so in the field for fighting wildland fires, conducting search and rescue operations, completing training exercises, and more. Not only will this better enable the Department of the Interior to executive critical missions, it will strengthen America’s national security in alignment with the president’s Executive Order to buy American and hire American.
Ben Goldey, DOI press secretary
Ben Goldey’s note goes on to recap a bit more of the context:
In January, Bernhardt signed Secretary’s Order 3379 requiring the temporary cessation of non-emergency unmanned aircraft systems fleet operations. While drones are important to critical Interior missions, the Department needed to ensure the technology used for these operations is such that it would not compromise our national security interests. For drones that are not on the Department of Defense’s approved list, operations continue in emergency situations and other approved purposes per the Secretary’s Order, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.
Here’s the memo from Secretary Bernhardt. It’s definitely worth reading:
As the note indicates, the US Department of Defense has been working to create a list of what we might simply call “approved” drones. Bernhardt’s memo refers to these as “secure and trusted sUAS for Federal government operations.”
The Blue sUAS availability may help fulfill these emergency and non-emergency missions and training for such missions, which are consistent with the Department’s national security interests.
David Bernhardt, DOI Secretary
We already know that drones manufactured by DJI are not going to be on this list, which is a major issue for that company. So who is on the list? Well, some you will definitely have heard of, and some not.
The US company’s M440C is on the list. Here’s a listing from the company website, which includes specifications:
And here’s more from the Florida-based company, with a video presentation:
Parrot’s Anafi USA, which we covered extensively at launch, is also on the list:
The Skydio X2 was announced earlier this year and is being delivered Q4. It will likely have an AI edge over its competition. When this was announced, we thought it was a really capable-looking device:
The Teal “Golden Eagle” also makes the list. It’s produced entirely in the US and is suitable for short-range reconnaissance missions and situational awareness:
The Vesper is an interesting drone. Weighing a scant 590 grams, it can fly for up to 53 minutes.
Vantage Robotics is headquartered in Silicon Valley.
We’ve asked DJI for comment on the DOI memo. When we get something back, we’ll update.
DJI, understandably, isn’t too thrilled about this latest development. It sees this as being more about trade protectionism than anything else. Given the historically ill-defined parameters around what constitutes a “secure” drone, the company may well have a point:
The new DOI guidance finally acknowledges that the grounding of its drone fleet was never about national security, but rather thinly-veiled economic protectionism. Five manufacturers were just handed an unfair advantage in the marketplace, as they can build their drones with Chinese parts while other companies cannot. The Blue Drone companies also charge three to five times more than a comparable DJI platform, meaning U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill for expensive military-grade drone technology from defense contractors for non-military activity such as prescribed burns, wildlife conservation and geological surveying.
What’s very true here is that these non-military activities don’t require mil-spec drones. We’ve certainly interviewed some First Responders earlier this year who say no one can compete with the capabilities that many DJI products bring to the table for the price.
We also take the position that rather than a blanket ban, perhaps the DOI should be looking instead at mission-based guidelines. If there is genuinely some sensitive mission that truly demands a mil-spec UAS, by all means spell it out. But in a year when wildfires have been decimating the west coast, do you really want to take drones out of the air? It seems a short-sighted move.
What do you think? Is the DOI justified? Or is DJI right when it suggests trade protectionism? Let us know in the comments below.