US ‘Set To Ground Civilian Drone Programme’ Over Spying Risk

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Drones manufactured by China's DJI. Image credit: DJI

Department of the Interior may permanently ground fleet of nearly 1,000 civilian drones over China espionage fears

The US is reportedly set to permanently ground a major civilian drone programme due to concerns over the aircraft being manufactured all or partly in China.

The move, if it goes ahead, would underscore the US administration’s concerns over the spread of technology manufactured in China, which it has argued could be used for state spying.

The US Department of the Interior announced in October it would temporarily ground a fleet of 810 camera drones used for purposes such as fighting wildfires, mapping terrain and monitoring natural resources, while it evaluated the drones’ security risks.

That move is now set to be made permanent, the Financial Times reported.

A drone manufactured by China's DJI. Image credit: DJI
A drone manufactured by China’s DJI. Image credit: DJI

Grounded

Secretary of the interior David Bernhardt has not yet approved a final policy, but the paper’s sources said he is planning to pull the fleet from action.

Exceptions are to be made for emergencies such as fighting wildfires and possibly for training, the paper said.

The department said the review is ongoing and that drones manufactured in China or containing Chinese-made components remain grounded except for emergency use.

China’s DJI, which made 121 of the Department of the Interior’s drones, said there was a “lack of credible evidence” to support banning all drone technology from a particular country.

“While we have not seen the new policy, we look forward to reviewing the findings of DOI’S comprehensive review of its drone programme,” the company said in a statement.

Dozens of members of staff at the affected agencies have protested the restrictions, according to documents cited by the FT.

Human risk

In the absence of drones, humans are sometimes required to fly manned aircraft in missions that can be costly or dangerous.

US officials have said they are concerned that the images captured by camera drones could be accessed by the Chinese government, creating a national security risk.

The US Army has issued a directive banning drones made by market leader DJI, while the US Congress is debating a bill that would ban the federal government from buying Chinese-made drones.

The concerns mirror the administration’s efforts to lobby US allies to ban the use of parts made by China’s Huawei in next-generation 5G networks, also over spying fears.

Huawei has repeatedly denied its technology could be used for spying.

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