Federal agencies deploy Chinese drones in U.S. airspace

You might not be familiar with a company called DJI. It's a large, Chinese drone manufacturer. The Army and Interior Department have banned DJI products, becaus...

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You might not be familiar with a company called DJI. It’s a large, Chinese drone manufacturer. The Army and Interior Department have banned DJI products, because the company — which is closely associated with the Chinese Communist Party — is a security threat. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Lars Schonander, policy and technology researcher at the Lincoln Network, who is concerned that other federal agencies continue to buy DJI drones.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: So tell us about DJI. It sounds innocuous enough and they sell these retail, some of these pieces of equipment, in China, correct?

Lars Schonander: Yes, DJI is a Chinese drone company that’s been around since 2006. They have become popular because compared to a lot of drone manufacturers in the United States and Europe, they’re not only cheaper to use, but they’re far more programmable. So people have used them for a variety of purposes, not just for consumer purposes. But for example, police forces use it to track suspects, farmers use them to look at their crops, engineers can use them to survey roads when doing survey work. There’s really a lot you can do with these drones. And DJI has fully admitted this where they have a variety of lines and types of drones being used, some being used for for surveillance purposes, and some being used for more commercial purposes.

Tom Temin: So they’re big enough that you can put a capable camera and radio type of outfit on there, and it’ll stay up long enough to be useful. So these are fairly capable drones?

Lars Schonander: Yeah, I would say that they’re fairly capable drones. Scientists have used them to do various types of machine learning projects based on the data they collect on these drones. So people have really gotten used to using these products, all things considered, because how simply useful they are to the average consumer.

Tom Temin: And review for us the Army policy and the Interior Department policy that you’ve written about.

Lars Schonander: They banned it. So first, back in 2017, the Army stopped using DJI drones due to cybersecurity concerns. Then we jump to 2020 and the Department of Interior downs the majority of their drone fleet, because they’re concerned about the cybersecurity concerns about DJI. To get into that a little bit more, through a little bit of digging, I discovered a report from Interior on their flight statistics from 2021. DJI makes a minority of their drone fleet itself, but the majority, roughly two thirds of the flight time, because they view them as a better tool for them to actually do firefighting and surveying, that type of data than the other drones they have in their toolkit.

Tom Temin: All right, and what is the security threat of them specifically?

Lars Schonander: There are a few to go into. One is cybersecurity, that the DGI could be collecting data from the drone, either doing telemetry from the drone itself, or through the application. Because typically what happens is you have an iPhone or Android application to actually operate the drone. That there could be cybersecurity concerns with data from that being siphoned over to an actor that is not yourself.

Tom Temin: Sure. And I think you also wrote that there is the capability that these could be just arbitrarily turned off and crashed, grounded.

Lars Schonander: Yeah, there’s a concept called geofencing where you basically, on a map, you draw a polygon that specifies a specific area where objects can’t habit in. To provide a example, in D.C., that’s why when you write a Lime bike, sometimes it stops working: You’re in an area where it tells you that you can’t do the electro assist, so it will slow down. The same principle applies to the DJI drones. They know the locations of the drones, so that if it’s in an unauthorized area, it will simply stop working. One concern is that DJI could retroactively create geofencing spots in critical locations and the drones would suddenly stop working, forcing the United States to either jailbreak the drones to be able to bypass those concerns or simply stop using them in the first place.

Tom Temin: Right. And I suppose they could also remotely control them if they can do everything else. They could maybe geofence it right over the White House if they wanted or something.

Lars Schonander: Yes, that was actually a concern recently. There was an article in Politico about a DJI drone fleet flying around in D.C. in places they should probably not be flying around.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Lars Schonander. He’s policy and technology researcher at the Lincoln Network. And tell us the methodology by which you were able to discover that several federal agencies are still buying and using them.

Lars Schonander: Sure. So I used a tool known as the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA.

Tom Temin: We’ve heard of it.

Lars Schonander: It’s when you write a letter to a federal agency asking for specific documents regarding a subject you’re interested in. In this case, what I did is for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, I FOIAd for their procurement records of drones from 2010 to 2020. I sent that FOIA a few months ago; I got it recently and discovered the majority of their drone fleet, roughly two thirds, was DJI drones. The last drones they purchased were in 2020. In 2021, they purchased a drone from Autel, a different Chinese drone company that’s currently not controversial. These drones are used for agricultural research across the United States, like surveying crops, looking for diseases. As for the Secret Service, I did a mix of FOIAs and going on Sam.gov, which is the government’s procurement website and doing some searching to check if there are any contracts available for DJI drones. And turns out there are fulfilled contracts for DJI drones for the Secret Service.

Tom Temin: Wow, and do we know what they’re using them for?

Lars Schonander: Surveying and security work in this case.

Tom Temin: Right. So the telemetric data from Secret Service? Well, the implications there are obvious. And then for the Agricultural Research Service, I guess, one could surmise, China could get that information and understand strategically how U.S. crops are doing, and maybe introduce, there’s a disease there. Maybe we can help it spread. I’m just making that up. But that’s a potential, right?

Lars Schonander: Yeah, a more realistic threat could be, much like why the Interior downed their fleet, that there’s a cybersecurity concern of being dependent on one major manufacturer. A new finding, and this will be breaking to your audience, is I got more FOIA data back yesterday, where they uncovered 40 more drones that I was not told when I did the first FOIA request. What’s interesting about this is I discovered around $1.3 million worth of drones, they did not know who made them.

Tom Temin: And this is which agency?

Lars Schonander: This is the same agency. This is USDA ARS.

Tom Temin: Okay, so you just found out that there’s 40 more drones. The total value of is $1.3 million. So these are not like high-priced items?

Lars Schonander: Not quite; out of the 40 drones, $1.3 million in value, we don’t know the manufacturer of.

Tom Temin: Interesting. Okay, well, I guess that’ll come out now. And what about alternate manufacturers of drones? Are there any that are made in the European Union that are equally capable?

Lars Schonander: Yes, Parrot is made in the European Union, for example, and the Department of Defense maintains a system called Blue UAS, which is a set of verified manufacturers of drones in the United States that fulfill security guidelines. Skydio is an example of a drone company that follows these regulations. There was an interesting complaint about Interior about these regulations, roughly a year ago, where the main complaint is that American and European made drones are simply more expensive and less versatile than DJI drones, which is why they felt hampered that they were restricted in the types of drones they could procure.

Tom Temin: All right. So have you gotten any reaction since you published something in the Wall Street Journal earlier talking about these acquisitions by USDA ARS, and also by the Secret Service, contrasting with the fact that they are banned by the Army and the Interior Department? Any reaction so far?

Lars Schonander: Mostly praise. I’ve been getting messages from various American drone manufacturers that are happy, but somebody is pointing out that DJI is simply so dominant in the drone industry that prior to a few years ago, it was 80%. Now it’s at 70%. Massive global market share simply because they have the know-how and the production capabilities and that this makes American drone manufacturers understandably aggravated as they’re seen as being out competed by the Chinese manufacturer who has cybersecurity concerns. And last year, due to [the Office of Foreign Assets Control], has ties to the security state work being done in Xinjiang and China.

Tom Temin: Wow. And you’ve also had support from the at least one commissioner of the FCC too, in this effort?

Lars Schonander: Yeah, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has been on DJI for some time, approved of this article.

Tom Temin: Got it? Well, so what happens next? I guess it’s up to the government at this point?

Lars Schonander: Yeah, it’s up to the government to keep doing the work and trying to manage DJI drones. There were a couple of bills introduced in the past couple of years regulating Chinese manufactured drones. They have not gone anywhere so far. There’s also work to be done at the state level. Recently, Florida banned the usage of Chinese manufacturer drones and is following similar guidelines to what DoD does in procurement. To my knowledge, they’re the only state that has these specific procurement regulations.


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