Why US Secret Service and FBI are still buying DJI drones

dji drones us government

While the US Department of Defense has been shouting itself hoarse over DJI drones being “potential threats to national security,” the FBI and the US Secret Service have bought at least 27 DJI drones in the past few months. So, what gives?

These procurements, brought to light via an Axios report, reveal that the Secret Service bought eight DJI drones on July 26. More specifically, the Secret Service procured DJI Mavic 2 Pro and DJI Phantom 4 Pro (P4P) drones, stating:

The equipment will supplement the Agency’s existing fleet of small unmanned aircraft and improved mission support through the use of the most up-to-date equipment and software.

A week before that, the FBI bought 19 DJI drones. These were all P4P birds, through which the FBI wanted to train new remote pilots. In its solicitation letter, the FBI writes:

This is a sUAS produced for the consumer market that combines all the Evidence Response Team Unit (ERTU) requirements: ease of use, high camera resolution, obstacle avoidance, and is relatively low in cost for new and learning remote pilots.

The DJI P4P is the only commercially available consumer sUAS to combine all the required capabilities at an acceptable cost.

The FBI solicitation letter further clarifies:

Other available sUASs were not acceptable, because their sensor resolution was not sufficient, the aircraft lacked collision avoidance technology, or their cost was prohibitive.

DJI drones: A contentious issue for US government

In January 2020, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) effectively banned the use of drones that were not made in the USA. This action was followed by then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt encouraging the purchase of specific US-made “Blue sUAS” drones – a move that DJI called “thinly-veiled economic protectionism.”

But as the DOI staff itself clarified a year later in a memo sent to the incoming Biden administration, those Blue sUAS drones turned out to be 8 to 14 times more expensive and only 20% as effective when it came to vital conservation work the department did – a sentiment that is echoed in FBI’s solicitation letter as well.

Another federal branch that has taken issue with DJI is the US Department of Commerce. The drone maker found itself on the department’s Entity List in December 2020 over allegations its technology had played a role in human rights abuses against the Muslim Uighur minority group in China.

This doesn’t mean DJI employees were out there surveilling a minority group, but that its products were apparently used in the mission. But as former DJI employee David Benowitz, who is now with an independent research body called DroneAnalyst, offered context on the matter then, this connection may have been overblown:

In any case, being on the Entity List precluded DJI from purchasing or transferring US technology to China. But since DJI products are manufactured with largely Chinese components (just like US government-approved Blue sUAS drones use a substantial number of Chinese components), the company ended up grappling more with bad press than with operational issues.

One aftermath, though, was that DJI stopped integrating US-made FLIR sensors into its hardware and began promoting its in-house sensors for complex commercial operations instead.

The US Department of Defense has, meanwhile, stressed that DJI drones pose “potential threats to national security” and even slammed a Pentagon audit report that suggested otherwise.

‘Potential’ indeed is the keyword here

DJI has time and again reiterated that its drones use only the least amount of data necessary to help ensure safety through features such as location-based geofencing. And we have to credit DJI for taking these proactive safety measures to keep the world’s skies safe in the drone era.

As Adam Linsberg, a DJI spokesperson, tells DroneDJ:

Our systems are designed so customers never have to share their photos, videos or flight logs with anyone, including DJI. The data security architecture that protects this information has been repeatedly validated by US government agencies as well as respected private cybersecurity analysts.

Also noteworthy is the Local Data Mode that DJI provides to its government and commercial customers as additional protection for data generated during drone ops. When enabled, this internet “kill switch” prevents the DJI app from sending or receiving any data over the internet.

Linsberg adds:

Critics who say our products create a hypothetical threat have never produced a shred of evidence to back up their claims; the people in critical operations who use our drones have evaluated the evidence and know they can rely on our data security protections. Our customers know that DJI drones remain the most capable and most affordable products for a wide variety of uses, including sensitive industrial and government work.

And perhaps this is why federal law enforcement agencies continue to buy DJI drones… even today.

Read more: Police: Without drone, locating Colorado senior would’ve been ‘nearly impossible’

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