Drone news headlines have been dramatic lately, as news outlets pick up the story that current versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contain a section prohibiting the purchase of drones made by companies based in “listed” countries – including China – may not be purchased by the military without a waiver, due to security concerns. The latest result of the headlines has been the announcement by Cape, a drone operations solution provider focused on the law enforcement vertical, has decided to end their support for DJI products in favor of U.S. made Skydio drones.
DRONELIFE reached out to both DJI and Cape to get their story on the NDAA, drone security, and Cape’s decision to switch.
The NDAA: What’s Changed?
As far as an effect on DJI specifically goes, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has had a ban on “Commercial Off the Shelf” drones – or “COTs” for some time now. That ban essentially prevented military personnel from going off base with a credit card to the local big box store, and purchasing an off the shelf drone for military use. That said, there has always been a waiver process in place for departments that feel that an off the shelf, consumer product best meets their needs.
The NDAA would put that ban into law – with the wiaver process – but also contains some potentially problematic language: not only for overseas manufacturers like DJI, but for some U.S.-based manufacturers also.
What Drones are Actually Acceptable?
DJI’s Senior Communications Manager Michael Oldenburg says DJI isn’t trying to capture a military market – but the company is concerned, he says, that regulations based on something other than technology could be problematic for DJI and many in the industry.
“We’ve always been a commercial product manufacturer – we’ve never gone after a military market,” says Oldenburg. “But we think that clarifying technical standards is a better way to go about regulation.”
“Instead of the ‘country of origin’ issue, let’s come together and get some real technology standards in place,” Oldenburg says. “If there are clear standards that anyone who wants to sell into the military need to meet, that’s a much more common sense and transparent approach.”
The NDAA cites data security concerns as the reason for the ban, but doesn’t specify what security standards are required. Additionally, the text, like most government documents, can be confusing (read it for yourself here): right now, it includes drones manufactured in a listed country or “by an entity domiciled in” a listed country. That doesn’t put all U.S.-based manufacturers in the clear, however: it also includes any drone that “uses flight controllers, radios, data transmission devices, cameras, or gimbals manufactured in a covered foreign country or by an entity domiciled in a covered foreign country,” among other things.
“Where we are concerned is in the overly broad language – if you start talking about any components made in China, that gets difficult,” Oldenburg points out. “It’s a global supply chain… and we’re all tapped into the global supply chain.”
Oldenburg points out that pieces of DJI’s cameras, for example, come from Japan: other parts are sourced from around the globe. “DJI is a global technology company – we have our heritage in China, but we source components from all over the world. We use the best components that we can get – and those come all over.”
The Cape Decision to Switch Providers
Aside from yesterday’s published statement, DJI didn’t make additional comments on the Cape release – other than to point out that specifics of data security technology, other than country of origin, haven’t been discussed in news stories.
Chris Rittler, Cape’s CEO, says the move was prompted by in part by customer security concerns; but also by the desire for a partner in developing new and flexible solutions. The company hopes that moving to Skydio will help accelerate adoption. “The launch of the Cape Preferred Partner Program [Cape P3] was driven by a combination of feedback and concerns regarding security from Cape customers, prospects, and partners, as well as the increasing market demand for drone solutions that are flexible and can keep up with today’s pace of change and innovation,” says Rittler. “With Cape P3, we’re building an ecosystem of trusted hardware and enterprise application providers that — in combination with Cape Aerial Telepresence software — will help ensure the security of commercial drone integrations and accelerate wide scale adoption across industries.”
For Cape, says Rittler, the move is just a pivot based on market movement: “We see this as no different than investing in R&D,” Rittler says. “We have listened to the market needs and are investing in the future of the industry.”
While the specific technical aspects of data security weren’t discussed, Rittler says that Cape is excited about a partnership with Skydio, and their work on AI and computer vision. “…With the combination of Skydio’s advanced tech including artificial intelligence and computer vision and Cape Aerial Telepresence, we expect the Skydio platform to make even more use cases mainstream for commercial customers, and public safety and government agencies,” says Rittler. “Beyond technology capabilities, Skydio shares Cape’s principles on data privacy, security intellectual property protection, and rapid innovation and development.”
The NDAA has passed both House and Senate, and now the two versions of the Act will need to be negotiated. With many other issues on the table, it seems likely that some form of the current section will remain in the Act. Exactly what language the final version will contain remains unclear.