There’s an ongoing debate in democratic countries as to the wisdom of having Chinese-owned telecommunications components market leader Huawei supply the much-heralded ‘Internet of Everything’ via 5G technology, which has a parallel in the recent exchanges between the US government and miniature drone/quadcopter behemoth DJI.
While SZ DJI Technology Co Ltd, a private Chinese company, has been seen as a model of co-operation by many national aviation authorities, including our own CASA, it is experiencing strong push-back in the US. The latest move, from the US Interior Department, is the grounding its fleet of about 800 ‘Chinese-made’ (ie, DJI) drones. The US military had already slapped a ban on personnel using DJI drones.
Global spending on unmanned miniature drones (as opposed to the large unmanned aircraft manufactured by the likes of Lockheed) is estimated by IDC at over $18 billion dollars. With DJI’s market share in drones at anything up to 85 percent, it dominates the miniature drone market, with daylight second. This corporate miracle has been achieved in less than a decade, and, whether by coincidence or otherwise, is in line with China’s objective of being the world leader in drones and robotics by 2025.
In late January, US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt confirmed the temporary cessation of non-emergency drone operations to ensure ‘cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed’. He also banned the purchase of any more Chinese manufactured (once again, ie, DJI) drones.
The drones will be allowed for emergency purposes, such as ‘fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.’
This follows an alert by the Department of Homeland Security last May regarding Chinese-manufactured (ie, etc) drones: ‘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. 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.’
It should be noted that has been no proof of DJI providing unfettered (or even fettered) access to any data from DJI customers, and DJI itself denies it is even possible but, as with Huawei, the concern is that Chinese law requires compliance by Chinese companies with People’s Republic of China (Chinese Communist Party) demands.
The two pieces of legislation which China critics point to are the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law. Article 7 of the 2017 law states ‘any organisation or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law,’ – and will be protected for doing so.
The 2014 Counter-Espionage law says that ‘when the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant organizations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse.’
DJI, like Huawei claims it doesn’t currently (‘automatically’) do what it is being accused of having the potential to do. ‘DJI drones do not share flight logs, photos or videos unless the drone pilot deliberately chooses to do so,’ stated DJI North American vice president and country manager, Mario Rebello. ‘They do not automatically send flight data to China or anywhere else. They do not automatically transmit photos or videos over the internet. This data stays solely on the drone and on the pilot’s mobile device. DJI cannot share customer data it never receives.’ (China sceptics might mimic Christine Keeler (Google it) in responding, ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’)
DJI has responded fairly feistily to the grounding of the Interior Department’s drone fleet. In a statement titled How the US Department of Interior’s New Drone Policy Hurts America, DJI says hat it is ‘extremely disappointed’ and that the Department ‘inappropriately treats a technology’s country of origin as a litmus test for its performance, security and reliability.’ And not only that, people could die: ‘It is an alarming, politically driven decision that puts lives and property at risk.’
In a classic example of ‘pot, kettle black’ it further stated that the US Government concerns are basically protectionist, and have ‘little to do with security and are instead part of a politically-motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits.’
And as is the case with Huawei, there are other democratic jurisdictions such as Australia, the UK and the EU that are more relaxed and comfortable with DJI. The German Interior and Transport ministries don’t take the manufacturer’s country of origin into account when procuring or using drones. It’s all about the specs: ‘Regardless of the origin, drones to be procured must meet the relevant IT security requirements and the basic requirements for safe use in German airspace,’ the Interior Ministry is reported as stating.
Reciprocating the more approving attitude in Europe, DJI has given the new European Union drone regulations a gold star. In a recent statement DJI noted that: ‘We at DJI put a lot of effort into advocating for the new EU drone regulations to spread increased safety and open more possibilities for innovative drone use across member nations. We’re glad that this new framework does just that, and we look forward to the ways that individuals and organizations can take advantage of them.’
DJI particularly likes the idea that the EU regulations it has worked on will ultimately trump any individual EU country’s existing regulations.
DJI is now lobbying for a similar light touch when it comes to the looming requirement of ‘Remote ID’ – a kind of digital licence plate – for drones in the US and elsewhere, including Australia. In a detailed article published this month on the DJI website, it outlines how DJI drone-owning US citizens can and should submit comments on the FAA’s (Federal Aviation Authority) proposed Remote ID rules. It doesn’t seem to be all too keen on the initiative: ‘Remote ID is something that could impose ongoing costs and burdens on users and potentially compromise their privacy,’ it states, going on to outline the type of objections DJI users might like to think about making, and the best way to make them.
Meanwhile, in Australia, CASA has postponed introduction of a compulsory drone registration scheme to April 1, having slipped a couple of deadlines. More on that next week.