Expect a lot of hand wringing in camera drone circles surrounding DJI over a new piece of legislation introduced by Senators Rick Scott (R-FL), Chris Murphy( D-CT), Tom Cotton (R-AR) Josh Hawley (R-MO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). Yeah, it’s bipartisan. Ignorance cuts across party lines.
The main thrust of the bill is to prevent federal money being used to procure drones manufactured in nations deemed a national security threat to the United States, including China and Iran. Considering there are sanctions in place against Iran, that part of the bill would be pointless.
“Relying on drones made by our adversaries is a clear risk to our national security,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), said in a statement according to the WSJ [paywall]. He added that Chinese manufacturers have “stolen sensitive drone technology from America’s businesses and military for years and now sells it back to us.”
That’s laughable we buy drone technology for the Department of Defense from China. The DOD currently uses drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in support of our troops internationally, and on occasion stateside in support of Federal and local authorities. Currently, the DOD employs nineteen UAS in support of personnel stateside and abroad. None of them are off-the-shelf camera drones.
Drone Bill Targets DJI
Let’s cut to the heart of the matter. This is about DJI. Full stop. I know we all heard of the news about Saudi oil production being cut in half by a flight of ten drones. Or cruise missiles. They can’t decide which.
What I can tell you without a doubt is there is zero chance ten off-the-shelf DJI drones took out 5% of the world’s oil production. Here’s what a DJI Mavic Air looks like:
And here’s potentially what Iran or Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen used:
Notice something? One can carry a missile. The other can fly about a mile away in perfect weather and record 4K video at 30fps. I want 60fps, DJI. Come one, give it to us. Senators, I know you want to puff your chest and drag us into another war, but a camera drone that can fit into a small backpack is not a national security risk.
Breaking Down American Security Drone Act of 2019
I will hand it to Senator Scott and his cosponsors. Seven pages. Not bad. Granted, concise doesn’t equal correct, but what do you expect? Here’s the gist of what the Senators are calling for:
Prohibits federal departments and agencies from procuring any foreign commercial off-the-shelf drone or covered unmanned aircraft system manufactured or assembled in countries identified as national security threats, and provides a timeline to end current use of these drones.
Prohibits the use of federal funds awarded through contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements to state or local governments from being used to purchase foreign commercial off-the-shelf drones or covered unmanned aircraft systems manufactured or assembled in a country identified as a national security threat.
Requires the Comptroller General of the United States to submit a report to Congress detailing the amount of foreign commercial off-the-shelf drones and covered unmanned aircraft systems procured by federal departments and agencies from countries identified as national security threats.
What does it mean? Currently, nothing. It hasn’t even made it out of a committee nor has it been assigned one. Checking the assignments of the various Senators, there’s no overlap, so it’s going nowhere fast.
Let’s game it out and say it gets into a committee. Congress is prepping for its Fall session and then the holidays. 2020 hits and it’s an election year. So, it somehow has to make it through a committee. A floor vote. Get sent to the House which will have its own committee. Another floor vote. If anything is changed, it goes to conference to get marked up and then the vote happens all over again.
All over a camera drone company that wants people to shoot dronies?
DJI’s response is about what you’d expect from a company that’s had to educate a lot of ignorant people on Capitol Hill.
The WSJ reports that according to DJI, the Chinese government never sought the data that DJI does have and company officials said: “banning or restricting the use of drone technology based on where it is made is a fear-driven policy not grounded in facts or reality.”
In case the Senators miss the point. The company is saying you don’t know what you’re talking about. DJI drones are used for firefighting, agriculture, first responders, and by consumers enjoying themselves. They aren’t a damn Predator with a Hellfire attached to it.
What Happens to Drones Now?
If you watch a steady diet of conservative media, China is the enemy, which means DJI is the enemy. That’s simply not the case for a host of reasons. Eventually, the tit-for-tat trade war will wind down, and we can get back to the business of new camera drones.
And before you bring up geofencing done by DJI, that’s FAA mandated. DJI does not do it. You can get around it with third-party software but enjoy the fines. Yes, DJI is a walled garden. So is Apple. And a lot of tech companies.
I wouldn’t hang my hat on Washington politics taking down DJI. All they have to do is give the president a freebie and let him fly it around. Problem solved. That’s sort of a joke, but also true. We will keep an eye on the bill, but judging by the quotes, it’s grandstanding at best.