“TikTok, but with Wings”—Political Football Continues with Drone Bans
BY Zacc Dukowitz10 May 2023
The last few weeks have seen several developments in the movement to ban foreign drones—really, to ban DJI drones—from being used by government agencies in the U.S., both at the local and federal levels.
In Arkansas, a new law was recently passed that bans the use of drones from “covered foreign entities”—namely, drones made in China or Russia.
The law is clearly meant to target DJI. Here’s a quote from one of the law’s cosponsors:
[DJI is] an extraordinarily bad actor. It’s a Chinese military company. We can call it 16 things under the sun, [but] that’s really what it is.
– Brit McKenzie, State Representative for Arkansas
In Florida, a drone ban for all state and local agencies has gone into effect, grounding almost entire fleets for many police and fire departments, whose drones are primarily DJI models.
And in Congress, a proposal has been put forth to add DJI to the FCC’s “covered list,” a move that represents one more step toward a full ban on the company in the U.S., at least as far as government work is concerned.
Government Drone Programs Most Impacted by Drone Bans Are Almost Never Consulted about Them
Among all of these new laws and calls for further restrictions on the use of DJI drones, there seems to be little to no representation from the government employees who actually use drones in their work
In Florida, for instance, first responders have reported feeling frustrated and unsupported by the passage of a drone ban law that doesn’t provide funds to buy new drones or consider the realities of the market.
Despite potentially legitimate security concerns, in the eyes of many first responders DJI still provides some of the highest quality drone platforms on the market for their work—and at a price point they can afford. Further, the way the ban happened in Florida has left drones grounded throughout the state, prioritizing potential security risks over the real, life-saving benefits drone technology provides to first responders.
The feeling that those most impacted are being left out of the conversation has been echoed throughout the drone ban debate for years now.
Back in 2019, when the Department of the Interior was forced to ground all 800 of its drones, all of which were made in China, frustration was expressed by some due to the fact that no nuance had been allowed to order.
As the Department pointed out, some of its drones were used for urgent, life-saving work, such as fighting wildfires or conducting search and rescue operations.
But none of that information was considered, and the drones were kept on the ground indefinitely.
Arkansas’ Drone Ban Gives More Time but No Funding
While Arkansas has also imposed a ban on drones made by “covered foreign entities,” it has provided a more realistic timeline than the one used in Florida.
According to Arkansas Act 525, government agencies will have four years to remove drones made by China or Russia from service.
Compare this to Florida’s two-year timeline, which provided government agencies one year to begin buying approved drones, and one more year before a full ban of any drones that weren’t approved went into effect.
But the Arkansas law has the same underlying flaw as the Florida one—it doesn’t provide any funding to replace the drones that public safety agencies will no longer be able to use once the ban begins.
Florida’s Drone Ban Will Cost Taxpayers $200 Million
In Florida, recent reporting found that the state’s drone ban will cost taxpayers $200 million to buy new drones to replace the banned ones (almost all of which are DJI models).
But the state has only allocated $25 million to help pay for these costs—just above 10% of what’s needed.
At first, no funding at all was provided to pay for these replacements—only after an outcry from law enforcement and fire departments was the $25 million allocated.
Right now in Florida, it’s estimated that thousands of drones have been grounded in public safety agency fleets due to the ban.
You can’t measure what these drones have brought to officer safety.
– Colonel Robert Allen, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office
These drones could be helping first responders save lives right now. And if first responders had been part of the conversation from the beginning, a ramp to steadily replace the banned drones could have been planned, avoiding the sudden halt to drone operations throughout the state we now see.
This . . . has impacted us in a way where I believe we’ve been pushed back five years now. We’re starting over again.
– Captain Luis Valeriano, Miami Dade Fire Rescue Drone Program
Congress Proposes Stepping Up DJI Ban
Amid the churn of state drone bans being passed and going into effect, some in Congress are also pushing for more restrictions on how DJI’s technology can be used throughout the U.S.
Recently, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the Countering CCP Drones Act.
The Act would add DJI to the FCC “covered list,” which would ban the use of its technology in any way by the U.S. government, including from operations on U.S. communications infrastructure.
Congresswoman Stefanik tied security concerns with DJI to those connected with TikTok, trying to ride on the coattails of recent concerns about the giant video-sharing social media platform.
DJI drones pose the national security threat of TikTok, but with wings.
– Elise Stefanik, U.S. Representative for the State of New York
DJI has already been blacklisted by the Department of Defense and placed on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List.
Despite evidence that DJI is in part funded by the Chinese government, to date no proof has been found that the company is in fact sharing data from U.S. users with government officials in China.