The Financial Times has today reported that the US Department of the Interior is planning to ground its civilian drone program for good in response to growing concerns that hardware made wholly or partly in China could pose a security risk.
The latest move by the Trump administration will see the DOI halt the use of its fleet of nearly 1,000 drones. The entirety of DOI’s fleet have Chinese-manufactured parts, while at least 15% are manufactured by drone industry leader DJI.
The DOI is responsible for the management and conservation of most federal lands. The department uses drone technology to map terrain, manage wildlife, tackle wildfires, and monitor natural resources. In October 2019, the DOI temporarily grounded its fleet while secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt reviewed their security risks.
That review is said to be ongoing but it doesn’t appear as though the results so far have been favorable.
The Department of the Interior is planning to halt the use of its nearly 1,000 drones, according to two people briefed on the plans, after concluding there was too high a risk that they could be used by Beijing for spying. The decision is being made despite widespread concerns among department staff that taking the fleet out of action will cost the government significant time and money. Documents seen by the Financial Times reveal that staff at various agencies have protested against the proposals.” – The Financial Times
According to the Financial Times, Bernhardt is yet to sign off on the policy but does intend to pull the DOI’s fleet from action. It’s expected that exceptions will be made for emergency flights.
Chinese manufacturers & data security: The issue that won’t go away
Data security fears have long caused tensions between Chinese companies entering the US market. The banned telecoms and mobile phone giant Huawei being a case in point.
In the drone industry, DJI has had a fraught time dealing with endless questions over the company’s data security. Back in 2017, the US Army grounded DJI aircraft over perceived cyber vulnerabilities – a move that was probably justified at the time.
Since then, despite several positive steps from DJI – not limited to the introduction of a Bug Bounty program, an independent data security audit, the introduction of Local Data Mode, and the launch of a Government Edition Solution – the manufacturer has consistently come under fire for, as far as we can tell, being based in China.
The bigger picture, in this case, is that the machinery at work goes far beyond DJI or any single manufacturer’s data security history.
There’s continued pressure from Congress on the DOI pending the passage of the proposed Drone Security legislation. Not to mention the sentiment around federal agencies using equipment made in China at what is a politically sensitive time between the two nations.