In a keynote speech given Thursday at AirWorks, which is DJI’s own annual conference, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman called concerns about drone security — especially when it comes to DJI products — as a type of “fear-mongering.”
“In 2020, the drone industry in America is at a crossroads,” Schulman said during his keynote address. “Fear, not reality, is still holding back Americans from being able to perform more safe, efficient and effective drone operations. Fear-based policies that would restrict or ban some drone operations are on the table.”
Concerns over U.S. government agencies using drones made in China has been an issue for more than a couple years now. DJI is based in Shenzhen, China.
The notion that the U.S. government might ban its own agencies from using Chinese-made drones largely kicked off in 2017, when the U.S. Army prohibited its troops from using DJI drones because of cyber-security concerns. Since then, the Trump administration has explored an executive order that would ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones.
And this summer, the controversy has only accelerated. Cybersecurity researchers in July said they discovered a newfound vulnerability in a DJI app for Google’s Android operating system that DJI was reportedly collecting large amounts of personal information that could be exploited by the Beijing government. The two research firms conducting the study, Synacktiv and GRIMM, found that DJI’s app collected information from phones, and that DJI can update it without Google reviewing the changes before they are passed on to consumers, which might be a violation of Google’s Android developer terms of service.
DJI has refuted those claims, stating that there are a number of instances where Synacktiv’s report — which DJI called “exaggerated and misleading” either made false claims or otherwise misunderstood their systems, such as geofencing.
Of course, DJI has an incentive to ensure the U.S. government doesn’t ban its drones. A huge chunk of DJI’s customer base is the U.S. government, or private contractors who work for the U.S. government (and also likely wouldn’t be able to fly DJI drones). And if the U.S. government bans its agencies from using Chinese-made drones, then other private organizations like U.S.-based oil companies might also follow the U.S. government’s lead and put their own ban on Chinese made drones.
But DJI also says there’s more to it than their drone sales. Schulman’s AirWorks keynote called out instances of how drones or other DJI products help people — such as spotting sharks potentially swimming near popular beaches, or monitoring wildfires.
“All this group wanted to do is warn swimmers and surfers if there’s a deadly risk in the water, but even on a beach in summer, fear of China seems more important than fear of sharks,” he said.
“If nothing changes, fear-based policy is going to cost you money, make it more complicated to fly, and delay your ability to fly in expanded operations,” Schulman said. “There are even worse proposals out there. Some would take away your ability to choose the best drone for your job, or force you to buy a certain type of drone, or even ground your operation, no matter how beneficial.
Still, the idea of buying American has taken off in the drone industry. A 2019 survey of first responders found that 88% of respondents said they want to purchase drones from a U.S.-headquartered company. Since then, drone pilots have been rapidly seeking out American drone companies (in fact, internal Drone Girl data shows that search queries around drones made in America have spiked in recent years). And a study from The Hawthorn Group found that 71.3% of Americans said Chinese-made drones should be banned from U.S. government agencies. An even higher 83% of Americans said that concerns about security with Chinese manufacturers were valid.
But Schulman said he worries that such logic might lead to a dark path for drone users.
“Will myths and fears about drone data security – pushed not only by politicians with an agenda but companies that hope to capitalize on fear – will they drive extreme and irrational policy outcomes that stop you from doing good things with drones?” Schulman said. “Will the drone industry turn on itself by throwing fuel on a fire that can burn all of us, ultimately leaving you with fewer and more expensive options?”
Yet most public safety agencies in the U.S. currently do use DJI drones. A 2020 study by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College found that — of the 1,578 public safety agencies using drones — 924 of them are using drones made by DJI.
And not all government agencies are even onboard with banning DJI products over drone security concerns. Both the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget have come out against proposals for a Chinese drone ban, stating that there is no viable alternatives to DJI drones.
Further, Schulman said a ban on DJI drones could lead to more overregulation in the industry, which has largely sought to self-regulate (DJI itself has largely been an advocate for self-regulation by producing tools such as GEO, which prevents its customers from flying in restricted airspace in most cases).
“If ham-fisted regulation is allowed to restrict what drones you fly, it’s only a matter of time before it can restrict whether you fly at all,” Schulman said.