US Downs Drone Fleet on China Security Fears

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The US Department of the Interior (DOI) has temporarily grounded its fleet of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) while it checks whether equipment which is manufactured by foreign companies or contains parts made abroad represents a national security risk.

Drones are used by the DOI to protect national treasures and critical resources, in tasks such as: “emergency management; fighting wildland fires; conducting search and rescue; surveying Federal land; collecting research data; and assisting law enforcement, among others.”

“The [DOI] has been a leader in deploying UAS to better achieve its goals. These efforts include assessing, collecting, and maintaining information that relates to our critical American energy, transportation and defense infrastructure,” the DOI secretary David Bernhard said.

“In certain circumstances, information collected during UAS missions has the potential to be valuable to foreign entities, organizations and governments.”

While the drones remain grounded for all but emergency operations, the department will establish procedures for identifying which are made by foreign-owned companies or contain foreign-manufactured parts. DOI chiefs are being instructed to limit funds spent on such drones.

The temporary grounding measure was first flagged back in October 2019, so the latest order, rumored earlier this month, indicates persistent national security concerns in Washington. The overall effect appears to be rooting out and sidelining foreign kit in favor of US-made products. 

“With this order, the department is taking action to ensure that our minimum procurement needs account for such concerns, which include cybersecurity, technological considerations and facilitating domestic production capability,” the order continued.

China is not mentioned by name in the order, but would be an obvious target here.

One of its biggest drone makers, DJI, contributes a small number of machines to the 800-strong DOI fleet.

“DJI makes some of the industry’s most safe, secure, and trusted drone platforms for commercial operators. The security of our products designed specifically for the DOI and other US government agencies have been independently tested and validated by US cybersecurity consultants, US federal agencies including the Department of Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, which proves today’s decision has nothing to do with security,” it said in a statement.

“We are opposed to the politically-motivated country of origin restrictions masquerading as cybersecurity concerns and call for policymakers and industry stakeholders to create clear standards that will give commercial and government drone operators the assurance they need to confidently evaluate drone technology on the merits of performance, security and reliability, no matter where it is made.”

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