China Is Restricting Civilian Drone Exports—Including DJI and Autel

BY Zacc Dukowitz
8 August 2023

Chinese drones, including some of the top DJI and Autel models, may soon be hard to find.

That’s because China recently announced major restrictions on exporting several types of civilian drones.

Credit: DJI

The reason? The Chinese government is concerned about drones exported from the country being used for military purposes, specifically in the war in Ukraine.

The risk of some high specification and high-performance civilian unmanned aerial vehicles being converted to military use is constantly increasing.

– Chinese Ministry of Commerce

Restrictions will apply to drones:

  • With flight times of more than 30 minutes
  • With attachments that can throw objects
  • That weigh more than 15.5 pounds (7 kilograms)

As we understand it, this criteria is considered separately, not in combination. Which means that any DJI, Autel, or Yuneec drone with a flight time of over 30 minutes could soon be restricted from exportation to the U.S.—including drones like the Mavic 3, Air 3, or the Autel EVO II.

Although not listed here, another type of Chinese drone that may be targeted by these restrictions are those equipped with thermal cameras, like the DJI Mavic 3T.

When Do These Restrictions Go Into Effect?

We’ve heard different reports on the exact date that China will stop allowing exports of drones that meet the criteria listed above.

According to reporting from the Associated Press, export controls may have already gone into effect.

Credit: DJI

But Sally French of The Drone Girl did some digging on the topic, and heard from DJI that despite the recent announcement of the change in export control regulations, the new regulation won’t take effect until September 1, 2023.

Further, DJI has said that the restrictions won’t halt exports, just slow them by adding a layer of review.

According to the Chinese Commerce Department, drones and drone-related equipment can be exported normally after fulfilling relevant compliance criteria as long as they are used for legitimate civilian purposes.

– DJI statement

According to this statement, concerns about radical changes to the types of DJI drones you can buy may be overblown. But the reality will probably fall somewhere between DJI’s optimism and the stark restrictions listed above by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Either way, if you’ve been thinking about buying a Chinese drone, you may want to go ahead and pull the trigger now.

Rising Prices and Stiffer Competition

DJI has been struggling in the U.S. for some time.

Not in terms of market share—DJI has maintained dominance in the consumer drone market for years—but in terms of public perception and movements to blacklist the company.

Recently, Florida prohibited government agencies from using any drones that weren’t on the Pentagon’s original Blue UAS list. The move effectively banned DJI drones from use by public safety agencies, leading to an outcry in that community, since many police and fire departments have been forced to ground their fleets due to the new law.

Other state and national bans have also been proposed and passed in the last few years, all of which either explicitly or implicitly target DJI and Chinese drones in general.

Why does all this matter?

Because DJI is politically quite weak in the U.S. If the company stops selling many of its enterprise drones—and most of DJI’s top professional drones, like those in the Matrice series, also have flight times over 30 minutes—at a time when some of its top customers are being forced or nudged into not buying them anyway, we could see some radical shifts in the U.S. drone market.

Credit: Skydio

On the other hand, American drone companies aren’t quite ready to take DJI on head-to-head. In general, American companies don’t have the production capacity, or the number of types of drone models, or the pricing to compete.

In the consumer market, leading American drone company Skydio recently announced it would no longer sell drones directly to consumers. And Teal Drones, another prominent American drone company, has made it clear that its focus is almost entirely on military applications.

It could be that DJI’s forced absence from the U.S. market will create opportunities for newer companies to emerge, and a more complex ecosystem to start developing here.

But in the short term, if the export restrictions are severe we’ll probably see steeper prices for DJI drones as demand rapidly outpaces supply. And prices in general may go up for both American and foreign drones for the same reason.

Prices will rise across the board as customers seek alternatives for these drones that are key for utilities, public safety agencies and many other critical businesses.

– David Benowitz, Head of Research at DroneAnalyst

How the War on Ukraine Led to This Moment

From the beginning, reporting on the war in Ukraine has highlighted ways that consumer drones were being used for military purposes.

Video after video has come out showing off-the-shelf drones being outfitted with grenades, or being used to pinpoint the location of Russian soldiers so they can be fired on from other weapons.

The effort was at first grassroots, with people jumping in to donate drones to Ukraine. But it soon became an organized movement, with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense calling for people to donate drones.


And eventually, Russian forces also started using civilian drones.

None of this has been good for DJI. China is an ally of Russia, making people speculate that DJI was actively helping the Russian government in the war effort.

Different theories have gained traction online, including rumors that DJI gave the Russian Armed Forces access to AeroScope data so it could locate Ukrainian drones—and thereby Ukrainian military positions—and that DJI was donating drones to the Russian war effort.

In April 2022, after these rumors had been flying around for several months, DJI announced that it was leaving both Russia and Ukraine to stop its drones from being used for war.

But that departure didn’t stop drones from DJI and other Chinese companies from being sent to support both sides of the war. And this constant bad press combined with the reality of how Chinese drones were being used in the war have led to this moment, in which China is imposing a strict lockdown on the flow of long-range civilian drones to destinations beyond its borders.

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