America’s Drone Industry Is Trying To Ban the Competition

March 26, 2024   |   Tags: , ,
Customers learn about drone products at a DJI experience store in Yantai, East China s Shandong province, Jan 31, 2024. | foto/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

American lawmakers, backed by the drone industry, are looking to ban Chinese-made consumer drones. Like the proposed ban on TikTok, Chinese drone bans have been justified by fears of Chinese surveillance, but the real motivation seems to be protectionism: American companies are trying to edge out their foreign competition.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the American Security Drone Act as part of the military budget. The law bans federal agencies from buying drones from any company based in China and gives the Department of Homeland Security the power to declare other drone manufacturers "national security risks."

Several states also issued state-level drone bans last year. Mississippi required state agencies to buy American-made drones, while Arkansas and Florida outright banned state agencies from using Chinese-made drones. After Florida's ban took effect in April 2023, police and rescue services scrambled to replace their drone fleets which had cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The federal Countering CCP Drones Act would go even further, putting the Chinese company DJI on the Federal Communications Commission's list of untrustworthy suppliers. That move would immediately ban new DJI products from being approved for import, and might pave the way to ground existing drones, according to DJI.*

About 90 percent of hobby drones in America are made by DJI—as well as 70 percent of the industrial drones and over 80 percent of first responder drones—so a ban would force hundreds of thousands of Americans to give up their expensive flying cameras.

"Communist China is using their monopolistic control over the drone market and telecommunications infrastructure to target Americans' data and closely surveil our critical infrastructure," the bill's sponsor Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.) said in a statement earlier this month. There is no evidence that DJI drones transmit data to the Chinese government.

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a prominent nonprofit representing drone manufacturers and users, opposes Stefanik's ban on consumer drone usage. But the association wants to ban government agencies from buying new Chinese-made drones and push them to transition to American-made alternatives.

"Really, what we are focused on is the domestic supply chain for [unmanned aerial systems]," or UAS, says AUVSI spokeswoman Chelsie Jeppson. "If we are reliant on drones for critical and sensitive operations that come from another place…and if something were to happen where we could not get them securely or use them at a time when we need them the most, then that would be a supply chain issue for the United States."

The news site DroneXL criticized AUVSI for claiming to oppose "immediate" Chinese drone bans while supporting a Utah bill that would immediately ban public agencies from buying Chinese- or Russian-made drones.

AUVSI Government Affairs Manager Elizabeth Sila says that her only engagement with the Utah bill was a single email, of which she provided Reason with a copy. The email both supported the ban on drone procurement and opposed the idea of creating state-regulated "drone highways."

Jeppson emphasizes that there is a difference between procurement and usage. "We do support a movement away from their immediate procurement, but we don't want to ban agencies from using drones that they've already purchased," she tells Reason.

AUVSI issued a white paper in 2023 calling on Congress to use tax incentives, grants, and tariffs to stop China from "flooding the U.S. market" with cheap drones "to the detriment of U.S. manufacturing and global competition."

The Shenzhen-based company DJI was and still is the undisputed leader of the consumer drone revolution. Its Phantom quadcopters kicked off the camera drone trend in 2013, and DJI continues to control over 70 percent of the global market share for consumer drones. Its biggest competitor, Autel Robotics, is also based in China.

American companies simply haven't been able to keep up with DJI's cheap, reliable, and user-friendly products. Camera manufacturer GoPro tried to break into the drone business in the early 2010s but discontinued its Karma flying camera after disappointing sales numbers and performance issues, including drones literally falling from the sky.

Other American drone makers have focused on government contracts rather than consumer products. Skydio has "effectively tapped-out of the consumer and prosumer space," according to drone blogger Chris Fravel, while BRINC markets entirely to first responders.

And they've spent increasingly large amounts of money on lobbying. Skydio went from a lobbying budget of $10,000 and six registered lobbyists in 2019 to a $560,000 budget and 24 lobbyists in 2023, according to OpenSecrets.org, a campaign finance data platform. BRINC spent $240,000 on lobbying in 2023.

DJI has also jumped from spending $390,000 on lobbying in 2016 to $1.6 million in 2023. The company recently hired three new lobbying firms after DJI's former lobbyists dropped the company over some lawmakers' threat to boycott lobbyists for Chinese interests.

The U.S. government has gotten increasingly aggressive against Chinese companies. In 2018, the U.S. military banned troops from buying off-the-shelf drones over cybersecurity concerns. The next year, Congress specifically banned Chinese-made drones for military use. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce banned American companies from selling parts to DJI over concerns that the Chinese government was using DJI drones for domestic surveillance and human rights abuses.

In January 2024, a few days before the American Security Drone Act passed, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the FBI issued a joint statement pointing out the risk of Chinese drone manufacturers handing over data to China's government.

DJI insists that its products do not collect or transmit data without the user's consent. The Shenzhen-based drone manufacturer points to several outside security audits of DJI products by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Kivu Consulting, and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Another concern is that Chinese companies could remotely disable drones to give China a wartime advantage. That concern is more grounded in reality. DJI's FlySafe feature has long prevented its drones from being flown in restricted airspace, and DJI quietly added large parts of Syria and Iraq to the restricted zone in response to Islamic State attacks. 

Autel Robotics recently implemented its own flight restrictions, including not only active war zones such as Ukraine and Israel but also Taiwan, an island whose independence China does not recognize. DJI, meanwhile, has been hit with criticism for not preventing its drones from being used by the Russian and Ukrainian militaries.

These restrictions are easy to get around. Several websites offer cheap software for jailbreaking the DJI app. And there's a simple way to avoid getting hit with new flight restrictions: Don't connect the drone to the internet. Autel Robotics actually advised users in conflict zones not to download any new updates, which is not the behavior of a company that wants to enforce Chinese government dictates.

DJI even rolled out a line of "Government Edition" drones in 2019 that would not connect to the internet, in order to assuage data security concerns. The Defense Department internally cleared those drones for use after reverse-engineering their source code, then walked back its approval after it leaked.

"The nature of the attempts to ban Chinese drones are that if you look at a lot of the efforts, it's 'no Chinese parts, no Chinese software.' So, we would have to really produce a much more expensive drone," Adam Welsh, head of global policy at DJI, said in an interview earlier this month. "Frankly, if you use an iPhone, it's using Chinese parts, and it's manufactured in China. There's a lot of sensitive traffic that goes over people's iPhones. So, I think that's a real problem with this effort."

*CORRECTION: This article initially stated that the Countering CCP Drones Act would ban DJI drones from using American radio waves entirely.

The post America's Drone Industry Is Trying To Ban the Competition appeared first on Reason.com.


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