An amendment to ban U.S. government use of Chinese drones appears almost certain to become law within weeks. Contained within the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the measure bans the purchase of commercial drones made by a “covered foreign entity,” including China, by any U.S. government agency. The ban covers both purchases of new drones and flights of drones already in agency fleets, which would need to end within six months. The ban extends to drone components including drivetrains, cameras, and circuit boards. Orders for components already contracted for could be completed up to one year following enacted. The amendment has survived both the House- and Senate-passed versions of the NDAA and seems assured to be in the final legislation that is presented for signature by President Trump.
The amendment’s author, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin), said the measure was necessary for national security. “Drones manufactured by foreign adversaries should be nowhere near the federal government. This equipment from countries like China uses taxpayer dollars to support the Chinese Communist Party’s near-monopoly on this critical market, while also posing a serious national security threat. It is imperative that Congress pass this bipartisan bill to protect U.S. interests, our communities, and our national security supply-chain.”
Originally offered last year as stand-alone legislation entitled “The American Security Drone Act,” the amendment prohibits the purchase of drones and components from countries deemed national security threats. The ban extends to use of federal grants and contracts for purchase of these items by state and local governments. The ban is aimed primarily at Chinese drone-maker DJI, which controls 70 percent of the U.S. drone market and has repeatedly denied that data from its drones is harvested by the Chinese government. In a statement released earlier this summer, the company said, “We design our systems so DJI customers have full control over how or whether to share their photos, videos and flight logs, and we support the creation of industry standards for drone data security that will provide protection and confidence for all drone users.”
However, security concerns prompted the U.S. Army to ban the use of DJI drones as early as 2017 and earlier this year the U.S. Department of Interior grounded its entire fleet of 800 DJI drones for similar reasons. Earlier this month, the security firm Synacktiv reported potential vulnerabilities in DJI’s security app. DJI called such claims “misleading” and said there was “no evidence of unexpected data transmission connections from DJI’s apps designed for government and professional customers.”