DJI ban bill passes US House of Representatives

Well; the results are in from the Unites States House of Representative vote on the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), a bill which authorises funding for the Department of Defence for the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

And this bill passing is not good news for DJI; or any Chinese drone manufacturer for that matter.

Because, nestled in the NDAA is a section called H.R. 2864, also known as the Countering CCP Drones Act, a bill that will take away Chinese drone companies’ right to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); something which is just the same as banning the drones from being imported onto US soil.

The bill will give the FCC power to put Chinese drones on the Covered List, which designates equipment or a service as a security threat. Drones need communication channels to function; and it is the FCC that grants communication frequencies.

And if a drone company cannot secure a frequency, they become literally useless.

The bill also gives leeway to the department of defence to disassemble and reverse engineer components of DJI’s drones, ostensibly to find out more about their origins, and detect any security vulnerabilities they might pose.

The bill is now set to be decided again in the Senate before it can be signed into law by the country’s president; and there are zero illusions among the US commercial drone community that the senate of the president will do anything to stop the bill from being signed into law.

It is now just a matter of time.

Sadly, while this feels like a point for the US in the latest edition of the country’s trade war against China, American businesses that relied on DJI drones will be devastated. For one thing, this could spell the end for some small agricultural services providers that depended on Chinese drones from DJI and XAG for crop spraying operations.

There are alternative options of course for other applications, with the federal government putting some drone makers on a ‘Blue’ list that declares them safe to operate in the US.

But on the ground; there is a feeling that these companies are not ready to satisfy the huge demand that will inevitably arise from this development; as they are not even ready today with DJI filling most of the commercial drone market needs.

As one drone business owner wrote on LinkedIn:

“Something that I don’t see nearly enough people talking about as part of this election year’s anti-China drone conversation is the lack of scalability outside of China. UVT ordered two BlueUAS drones from an American manufacturer on January 3, 2024.

“The drones were not delivered until May 24, 2024. That’s 142 days for two American-made drones.

In that same 142 days, we ordered and received ~270 Chinese-made drones. Mind you, that is with today’s demand for American-made drones. Imagine what those turnaround times would look like if the demand only doubled, not to mention if the other 80 percent of the market comes pounding on the warehouse doors for American drones because our legislators seem to think they know best.

“Even still, legislation like the Countering CCP Drones Act and Drones for First Responders Act (DFR Act) want you to believe that the drone industry can stand on its own and handle the demands of today without China. Anybody who believes that, says that, reposts that, or even alludes to this being a possibility is either doing so on their first day in the industry, or they’re being paid to. There is no other explanation.

“Now some folks… will try to educate the world… on economies of scale and that is absolutely a real thing. However, focusing on DJI, for example, they’ve been at this for nearly 20 years, and even after accounting for Frank’s (Wang, DJI Founder) move to Shenzhen out of college, ramp up time after the angel investment from his family friend, etc., they’ve been delivering high quality, reliable, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drones for about a decade.

“Compare that to, say, Skydio and BRINC (both of which are American drone manufacturers) … Skydio had their Chinese-made R1 consumer drone in 2018, and even though it was made in China, it still didn’t see numbers anywhere near that of DJI’s 2018 line-up due to various reasons. They didn’t have an enterprise drone until 2020 with the X2, which from experience was almost always on a 45+-day lead time and riddled with reliability issues. BRINC’s Founder & CEO was ~14 years old ten years ago so he was just starting to figure out what life was going to look like.

“I don’t say any of that to be disparaging to anyone but it is very important context to have when looking through the lens of today’s drone industry and the geopolitical climate we’re in. Those that are anti-Chinese drone and anti-DJI are quick to talk about DJI being subsidized by the Chinese government. Turns out, that’s what has to happen for domestic companies to grow quickly enough to gain market share and economy of scale.

“Instead of subsidising and helping American drone manufacturers grow and scale, our federal legislators are pushing legislation to ban the oldest name in the game who makes the best product for the vast majority of American operators and turning a blind eye to the fact that nobody else can do what DJI does, yet. Go ahead, try to order an Autel drone in the US. You’ll be lucky to get it by Christmas…

Chris Fink: Founder & CEO at Unmanned Vehicle Technologies (UVT)

While another contributor had this to say;

“The “Countering CCP Drones Act” aims to ban DJI drones from using U.S. communications infrastructure, posing significant threats to small American businesses and various sectors reliant on drone technology. DJI, which holds about 58 percent of the global consumer drone market, is a dominant player in sectors such as agriculture, construction, filmmaking, and public safety due to its affordable and advanced products.

“The potential ban is driven by national security concerns, with proponents arguing that DJI drones could be used for espionage. However, these claims lack concrete evidence, and DJI has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, emphasizing features like Local Data Mode to enhance data security.

“For small businesses, a ban on DJI drones could be catastrophic. A survey by the Drone Service Providers Alliance indicated that 67 percent of small drone businesses in the US could face closure. These businesses, which range from direct drone operators to those involved in software development and service provision, rely heavily on the cost-effective technology that DJI offers. The disruption caused by finding and transitioning to alternatives would likely result in higher costs and product shortages.

“Public safety agencies, including police and fire departments, have also voiced strong opposition to the ban. These agencies use DJI drones for critical operations such as search and rescue, firefighting, and law enforcement. The loss of DJI technology would significantly hamper their ability to perform these tasks efficiently and safely, as many alternatives are either more expensive or less effective.

“Overall, while the ban aims to address security concerns, it also raises substantial challenges for small businesses and essential public services in the US.”

Dick Bouwhuis: Senior Policy Officer Unmanned Aviation, Enforcement of Unwanted Drone Activities

DJI has not made a public comment about the latest developments, but – through the Drone Advocacy Alliance, the company has been rallying drone users in the US to come together in opposition of the CCP Bill; and several did respond, writing letters to their congress people to vote against its passing.

As of now though, these efforts have fallen on deaf ears, with one such lobbyist publishing a response they received from their congressman in Texas:

“In recent years, I have been increasingly worried about the threat of Chinese control over American citizens’ private data,” the letter read in part.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) access to the private information of Americans is a significant national security concern, and Congress should take steps to prevent our adversaries from accessing these data.

“I am particularly concerned about the drone company, DJI, which has not demonstrated its independence from the Chinese Communist Party or its ability to protect the privacy of American citizens. It is crucial that Congress takes decisive steps to address these threats, ensuring that American citizens’ private information remains secure and protected from foreign interference. By enacting robust oversight mechanisms, we can mitigate the risks posed by companies like DJI and safeguard our national security interests in the digital age.

“To effectively reduce the risk posed by Chinese-controlled drone manufacturers like DJI, H.R. 2864 would add DJI telecommunications and video surveillance equipment or services to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) list of items that pose a risk to U.S. national security. Current law prohibits using federal funding from specified FCC programs to purchase or maintain equipment or services on this list.

“Commercial drones should not be a point of entry for hostile governments to weaken our national security. I am committed to working with my colleagues during the 118th Congress to protect Americans’ private data and safeguard our critical infrastructure from the Chinese Communist Party without unduly burdening small businesses and their operations. While there is not currently a Senate companion to H.R. 2864, I will keep your views in mind should the Senate consider H.R. 2864.”


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