Chinese Drone Maker Planning To Manufacture In California Amid DHS Security Concerns

One Month after the US Department of Homeland Security warned that Chinese-made drones may be sending sensitive flight data to their manufacturers in China, DJI - which makes 80% of the drones used in the US and Canada, plans to build them in the United States according to Reuters.  

DJI said it will assemble its Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual drones in Cerritos, California, after the U.S. Customs and Border Protection determines that the U.S. produced value of its drones will qualify under the U.S. Trade Agreements Act. That designation should make it easier for some U.S. government agencies to buy the drones, the company said. -Reuters

"This new investment will expand DJI’s footprint in the U.S. so we can better serve our customers, create U.S. jobs, and strengthen the U.S. drone economy," the company said in a Monday statement. 

DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said on May 20 that DJI drones are a "potential risk to an organization's information," and "contain components that can compromise your data and share your information on a server accessed beyond the company itself.

"The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access," reads the May alert. 

"Those concerns apply with equal force to certain Chinese-made (unmanned aircraft systems)-connected devices capable of collecting and transferring potentially revealing data about their operations and the individuals and entities operating them, as China imposes unusually stringent obligations on its citizens to support national intelligence activities." 

In 2017, the US Army banned DJI drones, alleging that critical law enforcement and infrastructure data was being passed along to the Chinese government. Another report that year an internal intelligence assessment by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in Los Angeles concluded that DJI was "selectively targeting government and privately owned entities within (the US. critical infrastructure and law enforcement sectors) to expand its ability to collect and exploit sensitive US data."

Users are warned to "be cautious when purchasing" drones from China, and to take precautionary steps like turning off the device's internet connection and removing secure digital cards.

"Organizations that conduct operations impacting national security or the Nation's critical functions must remain especially vigilant as they may be at greater risk of espionage and theft of proprietary information," the alert states. -CNN

Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) asked at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing if Congress should outlaw the US sale of Chinese-made drones, stating "I think we’re crazy to do business with the Chinese." 

"We ought to be buying American products in every way we can.... They are not our friend," Scott added. 

Democrat Ed Markey added that Americans who own Chinese-made drones have privacy concerns, claiming that "Chinese animate (drones) with their values, which are inconsistent with ours," said Markey. 

Meanwhile, President Trump said in a June 10 memo that "the domestic production capability for small unmanned aerial systems is essential to the national defense," while National Defense University faculty member Harry Wingo told the Senate panel that "the US is over-reliant" on DJI drones, which have captured over 70% of the market by some estimates. 

"The glaring gap between U.S. and Chinese companies like DJI in the (drone) platform market should be a wake up call," said Wingo, suggesting that the issue "presents a national risk, similar to that highlighted by President Trump in calling out the risk of using 5G equipment from Huawei in U.S. telecommunications networks." 

On Monday, DJI introduced Government Edition, a package of hardware and software controls to create a data firewall for the photos, videos and flight logs created by a drone. The company said it is currently available on some of its products but not yet on Mavic 2. Those drones “cannot access the internet and only stores information on the device.”

The company’s drones are used by many U.S. government agencies, including the New York Police Department. Police in Fremont, California in February used a DJI drone to find an emotionally troubled deaf boy, and last week game wardens in Coleman County, Texas used a DJI drone to find two kayakers missing along a rural river after dark. -Reuters

According to DJI, the company is "deeply concerned that, left unchecked, the unsubstantiated speculation and inaccurate information presented during your subcommittee hearing will put the entire U.S. drone industry at risk, causing a ripple effect that will stunt economic growth and handcuff public servants who use DJI drones to protect the public and save lives."