All DJI drones still unsafe, Pentagon says

WASHINGTON – Last month, we carried a report from The Hill, which narrated the existence of a Department of Defence report clearing some old model DJI Drones from suspicion as a threat to the USA’s national security.

Well, the Pentagon has just come out and insisted that it still views all DJI drones as a potential threat, and that last month’s report was inaccurate.

DJI drones have been on the federal black list since 2017, when Washington accused the Chinese company of using its drones to gather information on US soil and keeping it on servers in mainland China, where the Chinese government could access its for espionage purposes.

Matters came to a head in 2019 when the Department of Interior was ordered to ground all its fleet of over 800 DJI drones over the spying allegations; and the federal government has been looking for alternative suppliers since then. The same year, the U.S. Congress passed legislation banning the use of drones and components manufactured in China.

Five manufacturers were then recommended by the Pentagon; however, last week, the Financial Times (paywalled) reported that there was a memo circulated within Pentagon circles, which bemoaned the that some of the drones developed and recommended by the DoD were of a poorer quality than the ones made by DJI, even when they came at four times the cost.

“The Pentagon spent more than $13m developing drones that government agencies could use instead of those made or assembled in China,” the Times report said. “But the complaint about the devices’ cost and effectiveness illustrates the difficulties the US has faced trying to wean itself off Chinese technology without obvious domestic alternatives.

“The memo, written in January for the incoming Biden administration, said: “By only having the ‘Blue UAS (unmanned aerial systems)’ approved, it reduces DoI sensor capabilities by 95 percent… The aircraft are designed for a very specific DoD [Department of Defence] mission set and will only meet around 20 per cent of DoI mission requirements.”

In its report last month, The Hill had reported that a Pentagon audit had found two drones built by DJI for U.S. government use had “no malicious code or intent” and are “recommended for use by government entities and forces working with U.S. services.”

“This report was inaccurate and uncoordinated, and its unauthorised release is currently under review by the department,” Reuters quoted the Defence Department saying in a statement.

“Mitigating the threats posed by small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems), including DJI systems, remains a priority across the Department, and DoD continues to ensure existing policy remains current and appropriately implemented.”

DJI had responded to the earlier report, absolving its products of blame.

“This U.S. government report is the strongest confirmation to date of what we, and independent security validations, have been saying for years – DJI drones are safe and secure for government and enterprise operations,” the company said in a statement. “DJI believes defining specific standards and requirements, regardless of a drone’s country of origin, is the best way to ensure the security of drone data.”

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