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A DJI Mavic drone in flight. Photo: Handout

DJI ‘disappointed to learn’ US Interior Department has grounded all non-essential China-made drones

  • The Department of Interior had previously resisted making this move in recent months

The federal agency responsible for maintaining America’s vast federal lands, is halting the use of non-essential Chinese-made drones, following pressure from members of the US Congress amid a widening tech stand-off between the world’s two-biggest economies.

In a reversal on Wednesday, the department said in a statement to Bloomberg News that it would stop flying all non-essential Chinese drones pending a review of the program. In a statement on Thursday, DJI said it was “disappointed to learn of this development”.

The Department of Interior had previously resisted making this move in recent months. In July, it announced that it had completed a 15-month review of its drone program. That review recommended strategies for making sure data did not leak, but allowed for the continued use of DJI drones.

The agency said in a statement that “drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components” would be “grounded” except for “emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or priority.”

There is Chinese hardware in all of the department’s drones. It did not cite a specific reason for the change.

The move comes amid ongoing trade and tech tensions between China and the US and as members of Congress grow increasingly concerned about American reliance on Chinese technology – whether that means drones made by DJI, or networking equipment made by Chinese network gear giant Huawei Technologies.

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“We are aware the Department of Interior is conducting a review to assess its entire drone program and are disappointed to learn of this development,” said a China-based spokeswoman for DJI on Thursday. “As the leader in commercial drone technology, we have worked with the Department of Interior to create safe and secure drone technology that meets their rigorous requirements, which was developed over the course of 15 months with DOI officials, independent cybersecurity assessments, and experts at Nasa.”

It’s unclear whether the partial halt will satisfy a bipartisan group of Senators who in September introduced legislation to force the department to stop using Chinese-made drones. The primary sponsors were Florida Senator Rick Scott, a Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.

“Following many conversations between my office and the Interior Department, I’m glad to see the Department has seen the light and reversed course,” said Scott in a statement. “We should not, under any circumstances, put American national security at risk by using taxpayer dollars to purchase Chinese tech.”

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The Department of Defense had stopped buying commercial drones pending review and the Department of Homeland Security has issued a warning about Chinese-made drones. The National Defense Authorisation Act included language that would ban the sale of Chinese drones for military use.

The Interior Department manages a fleet of 810 unmanned aircraft systems, of which 121, or 15 per cent, are made by DJI. The rest of its fleet was either made in China or have Chinese parts, a spokeswoman said, though she did not provide an exact number.

The DJI spokeswoman added that the company would “continue to support the Department of Interior and provide any assistance we can as it reviews its drone fleet and so the agency can quickly resume the use of its drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US lands agency reverses decision and grounds some China-made drones