Headlines Say Congress May Ban Chinese Drones for Military Use: Here’s What’s Going On

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For several months, headlines have hinted that the U.S. Congress was considering banning Chinese-manufactured drones for use by the military.  Today, they got more definite: many news outlets indicated that the ban was all but signed into law.  Here’s what’s really going on behind the headlines: and why it may not matter very much.

H.R. 2500: The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020

The legislation in questions is not all about drones, or Chinese-manufactured goods.  What the headlines refer to is the National Defense Authorization Act, an appropriations bill – essentially, the authorization required to spend money by Department of Defense (DoD).  According to Congress.gov:

This bill authorizes FY2020 appropriations and sets forth policies for Department of Defense (DOD) programs and activities, including military personnel strengths. It does not provide budget authority, which is provided in subsequent appropriations legislation.

Passed by the Senate at the end of last month, tomorrow the Act is scheduled for the House Rules committee.  GovTrack estimates the likelihood of passage by the House at about 58%: like all government bills there will assuredly be discussion and changes proposed.

The “Sense of Congress”

It’s not just drones – apparently U.S. military leaders and lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about vulnerabilities in the procurement system for all technology and telecommunications.  In fact, “Acquisition Security” occupies a large section of the Act, and there’s a common thread.  The Act says that it is the “Sense of Congress” that in order to “comprehensively address the supply chain vulnerabilities of the Department of Defense,” the onus should be put on defense contractors to meet and exceed security standards, and targets manufacturers from some foreign entities.

What the Act Says About Foreign Drones

The Act does not mention specifically Chinese drones – although they include Chinese drones, and the connection between the global leader, DJI, is inescapable.  H.R. 2500, Sec. 854 concerns the “Prohibition on Operation or Procurement of Foreign-made Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”   It states that the Secretary of Defense may not operate or enter into or renew a contract for the procurement of a UAS that:

A) is manufactured in a covered foreign country or by an entity domiciled in a covered foreign country;

(B) uses flight controllers, radios, data transmission devices, cameras, or gimbals manu factured in a covered foreign country or by an entity domiciled in a covered foreign country;

(C) uses a ground control system or oper- ating software developed in a covered foreign country or by an entity domiciled in a covered foreign country; or

(D) uses network connectivity or data stor- age located in or administered by an entity dom- iciled in a covered foreign country; or

(2) a system manufactured in a covered foreign country or by an entity domiciled in a covered for- eign country for the detection or identification of cov- ered unmanned aircraft systems.

The act provides exemptions for testing and training, and provides for waivers that may be approved on a case by case basis.

The Significance to the Drone Industry

Like many government documents – especially those not yet enacted –  there is significant room for confusion.  The world’s largest drone manufacturer, Chinese-based DJI, has already announced that they will issue a government edition, manufactured in the U.S.  Whether those actions will sufficiently address the above prohibition isn’t perfectly clear: but as a major supplier of product whose prohibition might reasonably cause a problem for many military entitities, it seems likely that DJI has made those moves based on communication with government partners.

Chinese manufacturer Yuneec teamed up last year with U.S. open-source operating system DroneCode, in the hopes that a U.S. operating system combined with Chinese hardware would be sufficient to ease security fears.



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