The Department of the Interior has shut down all non-emergency use of Chinese-made drones until a security review is completed.
The announcement came Oct. 30 and was opaque as to what, exactly, the new threat was. It’s a new frustration in what had been the U.S. government’s smoothest relationship with China-base drone giant DJI.
“We are aware the Department of Interior has decided to ground its entire drone program and are disappointed to learn of this development,” DJI said in a statement. “We will continue to support the Department of Interior and provide assistance as it reviews its drone fleet so the agency can quickly resume the use of drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”
The use of Chinese-made drones by Interior, specifically those by drone giant DJI, had previously been heralded by Interior and DJI as a way to overcome security concerns while still getting the affordability of commercial drones. DJI noted that the company spent 15 months working with the officials at the Department of the Interior, independent cybersecurity professionals and experts at NASA to bring the security sought by the government to the drones it purchased.
As a result of this collaboration, DJI and Interior announced the launch of DJI’s “Government Edition,” for DJI drones, specifications that included custom software, firmware, and hardware for DJI-made Matrice 600 Pro and Mavic Pro drones selected for use by the interior department.
In its announcement responsing to a previous Interior evaluation of Government Edition drones, DJI said “We’re excited to see the report validate how DJI products can meet the stringent data needs of high-security customers like government agencies and critical infrastructure operators. That’s important, because DOI found DJI drones were far better than those from other companies for their missions.”
Interior’s own assessment was more sterile in its language but supported the same conclusion, noting that the final tested version of DJI’s government edition “provided a reasonable mitigation for known data management assurance vulnerabilities of the stock Matrice 600 Pro and Mavic Pro UAS.”
DJI has such a place in the hobbyist and commercial drone market that, at multiple price points and capabilities, there are few viable alternatives, and despite an explicit interest on behalf of the US government that it buy American, there is no such American alternative on hand.
In 2018, Interior tried to buy quadcopters from 3DR, an American drone company that has since transitioned to making drone software. Without an American quadcopter to buy at the same price point, government officials have picked up DJI drones instead.
Government Edition marked a deliberate effort to match the present need of the Interior Department for a low-cost quad- and multicopter drone with the security concerns that come with buying flying robots made abroad. It was a long overdue acknowledgement that, while DJI did not make drones with the explicit purpose of selling those drones to government, people in the government were buying those drones.
Military buyers have bought and used so many DJI drones that the Pentagon has multiple times issued moratoriums on the use of foreign-made drones until security reviews can be completed. Congress has introduced legislation specifically banning the purchase of drones made by “strategic competitors,” which mostly just means China.
In light of that, the DJI and DOI collaboration of Government Edition for drones was supposed to provide an alternative on the civilian side of government. (DJI is explicit that its products are not designed nor marketed for military use.)
The new flight moratorium on DJI drone use, and the security review, could put an end to that detente between the drone maker and government customers. If it does so, it will leave unfilled the void in price, performance, and scalability that DOI itself identified when evaluating the drone market.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.