Begging to differ with US ban, UK’s MoD buys DJI drones

MoD DJI drones

The special relationship and traditionally skintight closeness on security matters between both countries notwithstanding, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is buying DJI drones that the US government has blacklisted on data security concerns.

Word the MoD was gearing up with DJI drones was first reported by The Telegraph, which noted the craft have been on lists banning US government agencies from using them since 2020. That prohibition was based on claims the company’s UAVs had aided the Chinese government’s repression of minority Uighurs by China’s government, and allegations their tech can be used to leak sensitive operator data to Beijing. DJI has denied both accusations.

British defense officials apparently either believe DJI’s contention, or don’t consider the accusations grounds for shunning the company. Recently published contracts signed in March indicate the MoD is precuring over $165,000 worth of DJI Matrice 300 RTK drones, as well as accessories.

Read: DJI among eight Chinese companies on new US blacklist: FT

The move raises interesting questions about how founded worries about DJI data security are, and to what degree anti-China sentiments roiling the US political class were the main driver to the ban’s imposition. Perceptions in Washington and London appear to differ considerably.

After all, the UK – and the MoD foremost ­­­­­– would presumably be just as alarmed about potential leaking by DJI drones as US agencies if they considered the threat of that to be significant. And yet British deal was concluded.

Meantime, London has been an active and vociferous supporter of Ukraine in its efforts to fend off Russia’s invasion, and would have doubtless soured on DJI if it believed reports the company had tweaked its widely used drone tech in the conflict to assist Russian forces, including leaking data from craft.

“We take the security of our people and assets very seriously and have robust measures in place that are kept under regular review,” The Telegraph quoted a MoD official explaining its acquisition of DJI drones – the first time the UK has done so since the US imposed its ban. 

Read: Blacklisting redux: GOP legislators targeting DJI anew

It is not known what the craft will be used for, though the MoD had previously deployed Matrice 300 RTKs to monitor battlefield exercises – and keep watch for any unauthorized observers peering on. 

The MoD suspended new acquisition of DJI UAVs following the US ban, but has not been barred from resuming purchases by any official UK blacklisting of the company or other Chinese tech firms that have fallen afoul of American legislators. As a result, several police forces across Britain have also procured DJI drones for official deployment since the US blacklist was drawn up.

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