Impact of Chinese drone bans in the US
It is a reality of the world we live in today that there is very little to no love lost between the USA and China; a situation that has spilled into technological innovation – where Beijing stands accused of using the latest innovation in technology to spy on the US.
It is not only a high altitude balloon that has been found on the wrong side of this accusation, but it spreads further into social media, where TikTok has been banned in at least one US state and also telecommunications, with Huawei and ZTE also receiving bans.
Chinese drone companies have especially felt the brunt of these bands and blacklists, with DJI – the world’s biggest drone manufacturer – being blocked from doing business with government entities in the US.
If you have been following the DJI story, you will know the troubles they have had with the US authorities since 2017. What you may not be privy to is what impact this face-off has made on the actual drone landscape in the country. There are many government organisations that use DJI products and have been caught in the crossfire as a result of the bans.
In the below article, Forbes has covered this fallout and the aftermath it has had on government operations that involved the use of drones from DJI and Autel.
In Washington D.C., lawmakers have been banging the drum about China potentially turning drones from Beijing’s industry giants into remote aerial surveillance machines, threatening national security and Americans’ privacy. Yet U.S. cops and states continue to purchase Beijing manufacturers’ drones. Freedom of Information Act responses and previously-unreported police data reveal state and local agencies have registered thousands of Chinese flying machines from companies Autel and DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker valued at $16billion.
That even extends to the United States Capitol Police: records of state government drone registrations at the Federal Aviation Administration show the United States Capitol Police has four models manufactured by China’s Autel Robotics. They are the only drones currently in use by the Capitol Police, according to spokesman Tim Barber, who said they were acquired last year for $2,000 each, but are yet to be deployed around Washington D.C. and were being used for training with no access to the department’s network. The purchases came to light thanks to freedom of information requests filed by Jerome Greco, who filed the FOIAs outside of his role as supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
That Capitol Police chose Chinese manufacturer Autel for its only drone purchases rather than buy American is indicative of a wider trend: Autel and DJI have 70% market share in the local government market across Florida, New Jersey, New York and Washington D.C., and dominance amongst major police departments in Maryland and Virginia. But states may soon have to bring the manufacturers and their drones back down to earth, should others follow Ron DeSantis’ lead in Florida and ban China-made unmanned aerial vehicles over intelligence concerns, or Congress pass proposed legislation to counter the apparent threat of foreign espionage.
The American intelligence community’s fears about Chinese spying have manifested in various attempts to curtail Beijing’s biggest technology companies and their data gathering efforts, the most prominent example being recent threats to outlaw TikTok, owned by Beijing’s ByteDance. Huawei and ZTE are amongst the bigger names to have already suffered; the White House has blocked their entrance into the U.S. market.
Without providing any evidence of the specific threat, and in the face of criticism that there is none, lawmakers and defense officials have long raised concerns about the potential for Beijing to pressure Chinese manufacturers like Autel and DJI to start sending visuals and data back to Communist Party snoops. As a result of those anxieties, in 2020, the Commerce Department blacklisted DJI, barring American companies from exporting to the company. In 2021, the Pentagon assessed that DJI technologies posed “potential threats to national security.” The Pentagon did, however, allow itself special dispensation to buy Chinese drones if they were for training or unique intelligence purposes.
In the most recent broadside, Senators Mark Warner and Rick Scott have put forward the American Security Drone Act of 2023. Supported by Senators Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, the bill would prohibit federal agencies from purchasing drones from countries identified as national security threats, including China. It would also ban the use of any federal grants given to law enforcement for the purchase of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles.
Presented with information on widespread police and local government use, Florida Senator Rubio said in a statement to Forbes, “Given everything we know about the Chinese Communist Party there is simply no excuse for using these drones, especially in our nation’s capital.”
“The use of these drones by Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies around the country sends the wrong signal. It suggests the drones are safe to use. They are not. We should expect that every image, video and dataset is accessible by Beijing. Congress needs to act. We cannot continue helping our adversary spy on us.”
DJI director of policy and communications Carol Kaplan said DJI products were secure, adding that operators had full control over the data the devices collect and can choose whether or not they want information uploaded to a server. “Current efforts to restrict the use of our drones by governmental agencies are based on nothing more than conjecture and supposition, and accomplish nothing but handicapping first responders who deserve the best equipment available to them regardless of country of origin,” Kaplan added. “Anything less is a disservice to the men and women who put their lives on the line for us all each and every day.”
Autel spokesperson Coco Lee said the company had no comment on intelligence concerns. However, a recent post on its website about its work with police in Papillon, Nebraska, Autel said its drone camera feeds were “broadcast on encrypted frequencies, and flight data is stored internally on each drone,” adding that its servers were based in the U.S.
Chinese drones swarm the East Coast
DJI is by far the dominant player in providing drones to American police departments and state governments, though its lesser-known local rival Autel is gaining some traction.
FOIA requests filed by Greco showed that in New Jersey, of more than 550 drones registered by government and police departments in the state as of April 2023, over 440 were DJI and 65 were Autel. In Florida, there were over 3,000 government registrations for unmanned flying vehicles. Over 1,500 were DJI and nearly 300 were Autel. A previous request filed in New York state by the American Civil Liberties Union showed the Chinese companies were trouncing the competition there too: 461 for DJI and 29 for Autel, out of a total of 530. Across the three states, the two dronemakers represent 68% of registrations.
Separately, Forbes asked agencies located near Washington D.C. what aerial vehicles they flew, finding that Maryland State Police have a 28-strong, Chinese-only fleet of DJI and Autel devices. Fredericksburg police department, less than 50 miles south of D.C., also previously used Autel, though now only operates DJIs.
Despite the Pentagon’s warnings, its own departments can’t completely quit buying DJI either. A Forbes review of federal contract records found that since April last year, the U.S. Navy and Air Force purchased a device each made by the Chinese giant. The Defense Department agencies didn’t respond to requests for comment.
China’s dogfight over the U.S. police market
DJI’s dominance amongst American cops is due to early market entrance, low cost and high reliability, said Tim Martin, a former Huntington Beach officer who now trains police from across the U.S. to pilot drones. While the federal government has tried to promote American and European brands like California-based Skydio and France’s Parrot, they remain overly expensive for most police departments, who don’t have the same budgets as the likes of the FBI or the DEA, Martin said. “You can get two DJI drones for the price of those other ones,” he added. That’s why 95% of the drones police want training on are DJI, Martin said.
While DJI remains king, Autel has some advantages over its rival, in particular around Washington D.C. All DJI drones currently have a “geofence” that means they are automatically downed as soon as they enter sensitive zones within the capital. Autel tech does not have those restrictions.
It also hasn’t suffered the same reputational damage as DJI after the Commerce blacklisting and Defense Department warning. In 2020, Autel, aware of its competitor’s perception problem, claimed it was moving manufacturing of some components to the U.S., promising law enforcement its Evo II aircraft were made in the USA “with foreign and domestic parts and labor.”
But that may have been little more than a marketing ploy. Randall Warnas, former Autel CEO in America, told Forbes that rather than the device being assembled in the U.S., an almost-complete drone would be sent from China and an American-made camera would be affixed with some simple screws. “It was never made in the U.S.,” Warnas said. “It was only that they were trying to find a way to separate themselves from DJI and gain market share.”
Autel spokesperson Coco Lee said “substantial U.S.-based labor in research and development, assembly, and U.S. material costs between our Silicon Valley and Seattle offices” went into the 2020 version of the Evo II. The U.S.-targeted model was, however, discontinued in 2021 and replaced by the Evo II DUAL 640T, which sources parts from China and is definitively not made in America.
That abortive attempt to woo a U.S. audience didn’t reach the federal government. Lee admitted that Florida’s ban and the American Security Drone Act have already had “a negative impact on sales.” Autel is, however, trying to get on the Blue sUAS program, a Pentagon initiative to create a list of trusted small unmanned aerial systems approved for government use. That would help the company get some traction in the federal market and give it a reputational leg up over DJI.
Warnas, who was a former DJI sales manager before a short stint as Autel’s CEO, also played down any concerns about Chinese drones being turned into surveillance devices. He said a ban appeared nonsensical when cops had spent millions on drones that were largely recording footage of everyday events, like drug dealers on the run and individuals going missing.
“If the Chinese could access this, and that’s a big ‘if,’ who cares?” he added.
Warnas, who spent just three months with Autel before leaving due to disagreements with Chinese leadership over managerial styles, said the U.S. shouldn’t rush out legislation banning use of DJI and Autel “until we can figure out how to manufacture cheaply and get a supply chain of components that are made outside of China.”
For cops on the ground, meanwhile, economics trump politics. “They just want something that’s reliable and safe, and they’re less concerned about the transfer of data,” added pilot trainer Martin. “But they’re also cautious about what they fly over. They’re not saying it’s a myth… they’re not flying over critical infrastructure, because there is that concern.”
The debates over drone origin also distract from what Greco, a legal expert on privacy and technology, believes is the bigger impact of widespread drone usage: an invasion of Americans’ privacy. Many of the devices being used by police today come with artificial intelligence and self-flying features, with the ability to follow suspects without human intervention. For instance, the Autel drones being tested by the Capitol Police come with an “intelligent moonlight algorithm” for quality video capture in the dark, and can automatically track a target.
According to Greco, the FOIA responses on FAA drone registrations showed how increasingly prevalent the aerial devices have become, without the requisite oversight. “We have agencies at all levels of government across the country buying thousands of drones with little to no prohibition on the purpose of their use,” said Greco.
“Aerial surveillance is another tool whose use is growing and legislatures are neglecting to properly address.”