The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced on Oct. 30 that it would be grounding all drones in its fleet manufactured in China, or those made with Chinese parts, while the department conducts a review of its drone program.
The department, which manages federal land and resources, uses drones for a variety of purposes from emergency response to natural disasters to geographical and wildlife surveys. It has a fleet of more than 600 drones which conducted more than 10,000 flights in 2018, according to a July report on the department’s drone usage (pdf). It is not known how many of these drones are manufactured in China.
The grounding will now apply to drones “currently being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property,” a DOI spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The review comes amid growing concern over the security risks posed by Chinese-made drones, which U.S. lawmakers and officials say could feed data to the Chinese regime, either directly or indirectly via the Chinese manufacturer.
Such concerns form part of the U.S. administration’s broader scrutiny of Chinese technology companies. Earlier this year, the Department of Commerce banned U.S. firms from doing business with Chinese telecoms gear giant Huawei over national security risks.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a daily briefing on Oct. 31 criticized the decision, calling on Washington to provide a non-discriminatory atmosphere for Chinese companies.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in May issued a warning against Chinese drones, saying footage or data from the machine could be accessed by third parties.
In 2017, the U.S. Army stopped using drones from Chinese company DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of drones, due to the “cyber vulnerabilities” of its products. The Shenzhen-based company in 2018 retained 79 percent of the drone market in the United States and Canada, according to Research firm Skylogic.
DJI told Reuters on Oct. 31 that it was aware of the DOI decision, and was “disappointed to learn of this development.”
Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers have introduced bills that would bar federal agencies from procuring certain Chinese drones.
In the House, a bill that would ban the DHS—which overseas border security, emergency response, and cybersecurity—from using drones from China and other countries designated as a “strategic competitor” by the Pentagon, is set for a floor vote after it recently passed the House Committee on Homeland Security. In the Senate, the American Security Drone Act was introduced in September, which would ban all federal departments and agencies from procuring drones made or assembled in China.