The Ban on Chinese Drones, Part 2: What Happens Next?

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An amendment, which Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican from Wisconsin added to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (NDAA), would ban the purchase of “off-the-shelf drones” manufactured by a “covered foreign entity,” such as China, by any government executive agency. The prohibition would extend to drone components, “including flight controllers, radios, core processors, printed circuit boards, cameras, or gimbals.”

The legislation would also prohibit any federal agency from flying any existing drones in their fleets that are covered by the ban, beginning six months after the bill becomes a law. Agencies would be allowed to complete the purchase of drones and related components under purchase contracts executed before the bill’s passage, for a one-year period after the law goes into effect.

Both Houses of Congress passed their respective versions of the bill last month and the Armed Services Committees of both houses are meeting in a conference committee to produce the final version of the bill to go to President Trump’s desk for his signature.

Ordinarily, the NDAA, which provides funding for all military operations, is considered as non-controversial bipartisan legislation, but this year the president has threatened to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Trump has said he would veto the NDAA as written, because it contains language that would rename military installations named after Confederate generals.

However, most observers think that given the critical nature of the NDAA, either Trump will back off his veto threat, or if he goes through with it, Congress will override the veto. In either case, the Chinese drone ban is likely to become law.

The legislation seems targeted at DJI, the largest seller of commercial drones in the U.S., and is based on fears that data collected by the Chinese-owned company’s drones could find its way back to the People’s Republic of China, where it could be accessed by the Chinese communist party under a national security law passed in that country in 2017.

DJI officials have tried to allay the fears that their products represent a cyber-security threat to the United States.

“Various third parties, including government agencies and commercial organizations, have evaluated the security of our products and each time have produced a report that indicates that the products can be trusted and there is no evidence of surreptitious data transmissions to China,” Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs, said in an interview.

While Schulman and other DJI officials cite threats to crack down on DJI and other Chinese-owned data-collecting companies as just so much election-year politics, the attempts to remove DJI products from U.S agencies drone fleets have been going on for several years.

In August, 2017 the U.S. Army issued a blanket ban on all DJI drones. More recently, in January of this year, the U.S. Department grounded its entire fleet of more than 800 drones, only a fraction of which were DJI products, based on the fact that most if not all of the drones contained Chinese-owned components.

The proposed ban on Chinese-made drones and components by the federal government raises the question of which drone companies, based in the United States or in other countries considered friendly to the U.S. are likely to take the place of DJI and other Chinese-owned companies filling up the nation’s drone fleets?

Several drone company executives, all members of the CompTIA’s Drone Advisory Council, weighed in on the subject.

 Are non-Chinese drone companies ready?

Non-Chinese drone companies will be able to step up and fill the gap created by a ban on federal agencies’ use of Chinese-made drones, assured Jeff Powell, CEO of American Unmanned Systems.

“I think they will. Will they be able to immediately? No. The challenge will really become — getting in and having a replacement technology for some of the things that are coming out of China today,” he said.

He said some well-established companies could turn their manufacturing might to the production of drones built to fit the needs of government agencies. Lockheed Martin, for example, already produces large, complex unmanned systems for the military. “FLIR makes a drone with thermal sensors. It could easily adopt standard sensors,” he said.

Other up-and-coming drone producers such as Skydio and Vantage Robotics could also focus their attention on the federal agency market, Powell said.

Robert Dahlstrom, founder and CEO of Apellix, said several drone companies might be poised to fill the gap left by the agencies being forced to abandon their use of Chinese-made drones.

“I know there’s a few that have been in the news recently,” he said, citing Skydio, AeroVironment, and France’s Parrot. “They are all well aware of this potential shift in the market and they’re all gearing up their products to take advantage of that.”

Dahlstrom, whose company produces specialty heavy-lift drones used in structure inspection projects, said one potential problem that the proposed ban might create is its prohibition on the use of Chinese-sources components such as circuit boards in drones. “Even though you have a U.S.-built or allied nation-built replacement drone, the likelihood is that there are still likely to be some Chinese components on the system,” he said.