US May Ground Civilian Drone Fleet Over China Spy Fears

US and Chinese economies are undergoing a great decoupling despite an optically pleasing Phase 1 trade deal.  The Trump administration is preparing to ground the largest civilian drone program in the country because drones are made in China and could be susceptible to foreign hackers, reported the Financial Times. 

The Department of the Interior is expected to ground nearly 1,000 drones in the near term, two sources told the Times. They said the drones are at high risk of being hacked by the Chinese. 

The decision to ground the drones could be expensive – as there would need to be non-Chinese alternatives to fill the void. The Times reviewed internal documents from the agency that shows strong protests against banning of the drones. David Bernhardt, secretary of the Interior, has not signed the order to ban Chinese drones from the agency. Sources said he’s planning to ground the fleet, with several exceptions, including the use for natural disasters and training. 

The drones in focus are made by Chinese company DJI, which is the world’s largest civilian drone maker. Congress has been debating a bill for some time that could ban all DJI products from federal agencies. 

Western companies have admitted defeat to DJI, as the company controls 70% of the global civilian drone market share. The proposal by U.S. officials to ban DJI from the Interior and other agencies could be a ploy to encourage development among domestic brands.

If the Interior decides to ground DJI drones, it could then trigger a widespread banning across all agencies.

A DJI spokesperson said: “While we have not seen the new policy, we look forward to reviewing the findings of DOI’S comprehensive review of its drone program, given the lack of credible evidence to support a broad country-of-origin restriction on drone technology.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service warned that a ban on DJI products would undermine the agency’s ability to monitor controlled burns and wildfires.

The cost of economic decoupling the U.S. from China would squash innovation and drive up costs for the Interior.