OBSESSION Machines with Brains
The US Army’s research division, along with the US Navy, has reportedly banned its personnel from using any DJI drones, those made by the Chinese company headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong. According to a memo acquired by sUAS News, a site devoted to the business of unmanned aerial vehicles, the Pentagon is direction its staff to “cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media from devices, and secure equipment for follow on direction.”
As the memo also states, DJI’s drones are the most popular consumer drones in the world, and the US military has in the past issued over 300 “airworthiness releases”—certification that these drones are acceptable for use—”in support of multiple organizations with a variety of mission sets.”
The reason for the dramatic turnaround appears to be perceived security threats: The memo pins it to “increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products,” but does not delineate what those might be. As sUAS News points out, however, DJI has access to a range of flight data and information from your phone’s audio feed, and the video feed from your drone, which is stored on its US, Chinese, and Hong Kong servers.
DJI has said in the past that it would cooperate with requests from the Chinese government to hand over a customer’s drone data if it was deemed to be a legitimate request. The company cannot, however, provide some sort of live-look into the camera feeds of drones around the world for the Chinese government.
Chinese companies have long had to contend with the blowback from perceived—or real—ties to the Chinese government or military when trying to do business in the West. It’s been an issue in the US for Chinese telecom firm Huawei, which the US military has argued has ties to China’s own military, and has kept the company from selling its flagship smartphones in the US until recently.
The army wasn’t immediately available to comment on the memo. A spokesperson for DJI sent the following response:
We are surprised and disappointed to read reports of the U.S. Army’s unprompted restriction on DJI drones as we were not consulted during their decision. We are happy to work directly with any organization, including the U.S. Army, that has concerns about our management of cyber issues.
We’ll be reaching out to the U.S. Army to confirm the memo and to understand what is specifically meant by ‘cyber vulnerabilities’.
One question remains though. If the US military were to ban DJI’s drones from service entirely, which drones will it allow? After the exit of 3D Robotics from the consumer drone industry, there are no major US drone manufacturers, other than GoPro, which struggled to produce its first drone in 2016. What’s left is a hodgepodge of lower-end Chinese drones, and Parrot, a French firm.