Earlier today, we reported on a memo from the DOI secretary, David Bernhardt. The memo was blunt: It suggested the anyone wanting to purchase drones for US government purposes should choose from a Blue sUAS list of approved drones. All of those drones are made in the United States.
The Department of the Interior has had concerns about non-US drones for some time now. Specifically, it has concerns that some models could have data security issues. What if images or flight plans from sensitive areas got uploaded to a distant server and were somehow shared? What if even components made and assembled in China somehow made a drone vulnerable? This issue has been on the department’s mind for some time, despite assurances from DJI that its drones – and particularly its Government Edition drones, which were made in response to clients like the DOI and do not connect to the internet – do not pose any discernible risks.
Things came to a head, or so we thought, at the end of January. That’s when the DOI effectively banned flights of any drones in its fleet that were not made in the United States. Things got even more stringent yesterday.
The blunt memo
In a memo from DOI Secretary David Bernhardt, those purchasing drones for government purposes were directed to a specific website listing approved “Blue UAS.” There, it listed five drones from five US manufacturers. They are:
- Altavian’s ION M440C
- Parrot’s Anafi USA
- Skydio’s X2
- Teal’s Golden Eagle
- The Vantage Robotics Vespa
If you didn’t see that memo…
Here is is:
A DOI email that distributed that memo to reporters said the directive was in line with President Donald Trump’s 2017 Executive Order to Buy American and Hire American. And, by extension, avoid purchasing Chinese drones.
And who would be hit hardest by such a directive? That’s not too hard to guess.
DJI has been trying to counter US security concerns for some time. First, it introduced special “Government Edition” of some of its drones. In June of 2019, this video was released describing how these editions differ – and why:
DJI has also pointed to independent, third-party analysis of its products that do not indicate any significant data security risks. Plus, says DJI, the Department of the Interior originally indicated that the Government Edition drones satisfied its concerns. Then came the January ban…and now this memo.
DJI’s position? This issue is not about privacy or data security. It’s about trade protectionism, pure and simple. And, it suggests, it’s a policy that will simply cost the US in the long run:
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.
DJI has also been trying to address this issue – and quash it – for years. At the outset, back in 2017 or so, it acknowledged there could be some issues. It even offered a Bounty Bug, which paid up to $30,000 in reward money for people who identified issues with DJI software that required fixing. It also attempted to keep consumers and Enterprise clients with a web page filled with articles and resources around data security and privacy.
Perhaps the most interesting report clearing DJI comes from global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. In an independent audit of three DJI products – The Government Edition Mavic Pro, Government Edition Matrice 600 Pro, and the Mavic 2 Enterprise – it did not find any significant issues. Its work was carried out on behalf of Precision Hawk’s PrecisionHawk’s Unmanned Aerial Intelligence Technology Center of Excellence. The study was part of ongoing efforts to assess threats aimed at drones. You can read all about the study, and its results, here.
Well, that’s an unknown. It would seem the current administration has its mind made up. If Donald Trump wins on November 3, it would be unlikely that this policy is reversed. If Joe Biden wins, who knows? There will certainly be some actions taken by the Trump White House that Biden would want to undo, but would this be one of them?
An option for DJI may – and we say may with caution – be to carry out final assembly of some products on US soil. But if those products still contain largely Chinese-made parts, it may be a difficult to pass the bar as a US-made product. In fact, Autel recently announced that it would be carrying out final assembly of one of its Enterprise drones in the US. Autel is not on the Blue sUAS list.
More likely, we think, is continued back-channel lobbying. The challenge for DJI now is that at least five companies, some with significantly deep pockets, now have an “in” that gives them a huge competitive advantage. That’s not something they will want to give up. And they, too, are capable of lobbying.
Trust us: Interesting times lay ahead.