The big picture: After looking into national security concerns about the surveillance potential of drones made in China, the US Interior Department has chosen to ground its fleet and use it only in case of emergency. Interestingly, this isn't just about Chinese espionage as DOI officials want to assess all possible actors that might represent a threat in this regard.
Recently, the secretary of the Interior Department has issued a no-fly order for all drones made in China or using parts built in the region, with the sole exception of situations where they are needed to aid rapid response teams, such as for natural disasters and rescue operations.
This is just a step up from what the US Department of the Interior did last year when it grounded its fleet consisting of around 800 drones, mainly because of concerns that they might be sending sensitive information back to China to aid in spying operations. The DOI uses these drones for a number of different tasks like monitoring dams, erosion, endangered species, as well as energy and transportation infrastructure, so this raises the question whether to trust that they aren't used for espionage by foreign entities.
During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that he came to the recent decision after investigating the potential security risks from drones, so his department will make exceptions for tracking wildfires or saving human lives, as well as training flights.
And while China wasn't mentioned directly, it is definitely the main target of the order. Bernhardt says "it does not specifically mention Chinese [drones] because we wanted to leave it open in case there are additional foreign-made sources that may be issues."
Popular drone maker DJI was quick to slam the order as "part of a politically-motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits." The manufacturer argues that such decisions ignores the fact that the industry relies on a global supply chain and that validation tests made by US federal agencies haven't found any reasons for suspicion.
According to Interior representative Carol Danko, 121 of the DOI's drones are made by DJI, while the rest use Chinese parts but are made by other manufacturers.
The DOI's decision adds on top of other governmental bans and restrictions that have been placed on telecom infrastructure equipment from Huawei and surveillance system manufacturer Hikvision. And while DJI's defensive statements do look similar to Huawei's, it's hard to ignore that even if the concerns are warranted, the US hasn't exactly filled the technological gap with locally-produced drones.
Some speculate this is all part of a "New Cold War," but the more pressing matter is that those drones present cost and safety advantages over using human-flown helicopters and planes. A former DOI firefighter attests to these benefits, but rising national security concerns seem to trump them anyway.