Florida Bans Chinese Drones, Causing Frustration Among First Responders
BY Zacc Dukowitz11 April 2023
Florida has implemented a ban preventing state and local agencies from using any drones made by “Foreign Countries of Concern.”
The ban is part of a new law passed last year, which includes rules about how drones can be purchased. Although the bill lists several countries, including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria, China seems to be the main—if not only—target of the ban.
The reason for the Florida drone ban is a concern that drones from “enemy” foreign countries could be used to spy on Americans. Although the accusations haven’t been substantiated, DJI has been accused several times of secretly transmitting data to the Chinese government.
In practical terms, the Florida law amounts to a DJI ban.
Banning DJI presents a real problem for police and fire departments in the state. According to Christopher Todd, founder and president of Airborne Response, “more than 92% of Florida [public safety] agencies have DJI drones in their fleet.”
92% is a huge majority. The ban means that 92% of police departments, fire departments, search and rescue, and other public safety agencies will now have to ground some or all of their drone fleets.
Which Drones Can You Use?
According to Florida law, the only drones that can now be used by state and local agencies are those made by:
- Teal Drones
- Vantage Robotics
Look familiar? This list contains the same exact drone companies as the Pentagon’s original Blue UAS list.
The only difference is that the original Blue UAS list contains specific drone models—Parrot’s ANAFI USA and Skydio’s X2-D, for example—while Florida’s list contains companies, without mentioning models.
Blue UAS are drones that the Department of Defense has thoroughly vetted and approved for use by federal agencies.
On its surface, it may sound reasonable to adopt such a list at the state level. But on closer examination there are some major flaws with the idea.
For one, the actual Blue UAS list is now much longer than the list that made it into the Florida law.
Due to an outcry from federal agencies, who felt the original list was too restrictive, too expensive, and that some of the drones on it were inferior to those made by DJI and others, the Pentagon went on to create a process for streamlining approvals.
Thanks to that new process, there are now 16 drones on the Blue UAS list, with more being approved all the time. Florida’s law doesn’t allow for including these new drones without the passage of new legislation, and it doesn’t seem to create any kind of streamlined process for changing the list of approved companies.
Another major problem is funding.
Unlike the Blue UAS initiative, Florida has not provided any funding to help state and local agencies make the transition to approved drones.
Florida Police, Fire Departments Frustrated by Ban
The Florida law that originated the Chinese drone ban not only prevents state and local agencies from buying drones made in countries of concern—it also prevents them from using any drones they already own from those countries.
The immediate effect of this requirement is that drone programs are now grounded throughout the state of Florida.
The Matrice 300 | Credit: DJI
According to reporting from Local10.com, the Broward Sheriff’s Office has grounded 63 drones, representing a cost of about $300,000. And Miami-Dade police and fire rescue have grounded a combined total of 41 drones, representing $200,000 in expenses.
Part of the problem we are seeing here is that this is an unfunded mandate where public safety agencies are being asked to go out and restart and rebuild their drone fleets based on the new rules and the new legislation without any funding associated with it.
– Christopher Todd, Founder and President of Airborne Response
This Is a U.S. Issue, Not a Florida Issue
Florida is not an outlier when it comes to how prevalent DJI drones are in police and fire department programs.
DJI has dominated public safety drone programs for years. According to a 2021 survey conducted by DRONERESPONDERS, 90% of public safety agencies used DJI drones.
It’s worth noting that the second company in the survey, with almost 20%, was Autel—another Chinese company.
This data is backed up by a study conducted in 2020 by Bard’s (now defunct) Center for the Study of the Drone, which found that DJI models made up 92% of the drones used by public safety agencies in the U.S.
If you add in other Chinese models from Yuneec and Autel, the total bumps up 98%. Here are the results from that study, with all the Chinese drone models circled in red:
Credit: Bard Center for the Study of the Drone
In line with this data, 2022 data has 92% of Florida public safety agencies using DJI drones (that number came from Christopher Todd of DRONERESPONDERS, and was quoted above as well).
Florida’s ban could ultimately serve as a cautionary tale, showing other states the mess that could result if they hastily adopt a ban without considering how to fund replacement drones. Or it could serve as a model, as eager politicians look for avenues to show that they’re tough on China.
Either way, the biggest concern right now is getting Florida police, fire, and other key rescue operations back in the air as fast as possible.