DJI’s Schulman: Time for drone industry to come together

There is a Zimbabwean adage which goes, one man’s troubles will not stop another from eating.

DJI has come to realise the truth of this saying of late, as they have watched their competitors in the USA take over government contacts and jostle to occupy the position that the giant commercial and enterprise drone manufacturer has lost in the last two years – because DJI drones originate from China.

True to the adage, DJI have been fighting a lone battle in trying to prove that their drones have no hidden agenda other than make life easier for mankind, with nobody in the drone world standing with them. Since 2017, DJI has had to fight politically charged allegations from the White House and the US Congress that data collected by their drones – which are made in China – is being smuggled to the Chinese government for espionage purposes.

Of course, with relations between Beijing and Washington already tense and as taut as the crossbow in Tyrion Lannister’s hand right before it loosed the arrow that disembowelled Tywin’s viscera, it had to be expected that these allegations would create a pandemonium that then made it easy for the federal government to order all its agencies to ground every drone made in China, or fitted with components made in China. Even drones that were engaged in operations as innocuous as keeping an eye out for sharks in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, were ordered to stand down, because they were operating on land under the aegis of the Department of Interior, which had to heed the order to ground its 810-strong fleet of drones.

Some fire-fighting drones already in the field seem to have escaped the noose for now, but the desperately needed new purchases have been halted, posing a danger to the government’s readiness for the fire season, which has already claimed vast tracts of land in California.

This has led DJI’s vice president of policy and legal affairs, Brendan Schulman, to issue a chilling warning to competitors, drone users and fellow players in the industry, that if they stay silent today in the face of the latest onslaught against drone technology – in an ill-advised move, which Schulman derided as a “losing strategy” – then there will be nobody left to speak for them when their turn to be crushed comes next.

Because drones have the same rotor, Schulman argues, so they are better advised to fly together at a turbulent time when an attack on one spell doom for the rest.

“We (the drone industry) are at a crossroads,” Schulman told attendees to the just-ended AirWorks 2020 Conference. “Will myths and fears about drone data security, pushed not only by politicians with an agenda, but by companies that hope to capitalise on fear, drive extreme and irrational policy outcomes that stop you from doing good things with drones? Will the drone industry turn on itself by throwing fuel onto a fire that will burn us all, ultimately leaving people with fewer and more expensive options; or will it recognise that different organisations need different drones for different needs and that drone users deserve fair competition based on price and performance, rather than a distorted market worked by political objectives?

“Will government and industry play a helpful role to treat drone technology like any other (technology) and develop standards so users can be assured that their equipment protects their data?”

Brendan Schulman

Schulman – who, as one of the legal minds at DJI, has personally been on the frontlines of defending his company’s reputation since 2017 when the data security allegations began to surface – said it was sad that competitors were scrambling to feed off scraps of DJI’s carcass and keeping a blind eye to the mortal doom facing the fledgling life of the drone industry, at least in the USA; a young life which looked to have finally scaled the rationale of suspicion and fear when the Federal Aviation Administration took a leap of faith in 2016 and – with input from industry stakeholders – passed the Part 107 regulations that gave the green light for commercial drones to operate more freely in the country.

Since then, hundreds of lives all over the world can say they owe their continued existence today directly to the intervention of drones that arrived with rescue before it was too late, in life-saving operations that included search and rescue, fires, and avalanches. Time and money have been saved in industrial drone applications like construction industry, in which US companies were reported to have improved their collaboration with developers by 65 percent and also reduced time to prepare data for analysis by 53 percent. Insurance companies were said to save over five hours and $300 per inspection.

But, having already upset the whole world’s plans with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 is now threatening to erode every inch of good ground that DJI has painstakingly built over the years; and nobody in the industry has raised a finger to stand in the embattled company’s corner.

The industry reaction has actually been opposite.

“We have seen DJI’s competitors trying to raise suspicions about our data security without any proof,” lamented Schulman, before he went to the heart of the matter with regards to the problems posed by the country-specific ban imposed by the US federal government.

“But I still have not seen a single third-party evaluation of the security measures of other drone manufacturers in the country, let alone at a level subjected to DJI products. Of course, competitors have a strong incentive to resort to fear mongering about our products, even if they and government critics don’t have any hard evidence to back up their claims.

“But theirs is a losing strategy in the long run, because fanning the fear of drone technology among the public, the industry and government officials will just rebound on the entire industry. Driving people and government officials to fear drones more than they already do is a losing proposition for every manufacturer and every drone operator in the long run.”

Schulman also questioned the wisdom of governments training their suspicious eye on only drone technology when the same security concerns with other technologies like smart phones and cameras have been addressed with reasonable risk-based standards on how the technologies function, not just by looking at where the technologies originated from.

(Cough… Huawei… cough, cough… ZTE… cough, cough, cough… TikTok.)

Such discriminatory policies run the risk of spoiling the whole industry, not only for drone manufacturers, but also for consumers who have come to rely on drone for a lot of operations.

Said Schulman; There are many proposals in Congress and the White House that would ground drones across the whole federal government based on where they are made. The proposals would apply to any organisation that works for federal agencies, or one that accepts federal grant assistance – state and local fire departments, and police departments that use drones to save lives; high schools and universities that use drones to teach students; all of them will be affected.

“These are not fair and rational policy proposals, because – while the restrictions are purported to be about cyber security, government is not dealing with that risk in a sensible way. Currently, there are no set standards or specific national requirements for drone technology, and proposals that are based on where a drone is made are a very poor substitute. They would block a drone with rock-solid security, just because it’s assembled in China, but give a free pass to a drone built in America, even if it had security flaws.

“That’s the problem.”

And, according to Schulman, it is a problem that can only be overcome when every stakeholder in the drone value chain comes together and stand up to egregious security proposals made to gag the industry, with little or no knowledge of how commercial drones operate. Schulman was of the opinion that if policy makers were made aware that people who elected them to office also use drones, and use them safely and productively, they may start to listen to what the people have to say.

“Industry should get involved too; their operations are at risk and their voice matters. If the elected officials who propose these bands hear only from the drone industry, they may think the impact is isolated. But if they hear from the American industries that have come to rely on drones and are capable of managing security issues and choosing products fit for purpose, they will realise the truth. Industry players who use drone technology have to realise that the proposed security measures will put the future innovations of the revolutionary drone technology tools at risk.”

We wait with bated breath as this saga drones on. Because an attack on drone technology in the USA may not augur well for their use everywhere else in the world, given how the current administration has already succeeded in arm-twisting some allies into ditching Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei’s 5G internet technology.

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