The U.S. Justice Department last week issued an order (OJP Order 2700.1) banning unmanned aircraft and components manufactured by “covered foreign entities” from being used by U.S. law enforcement entities and programs funded by the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) on the grounds that such aircraft pose a national security risk. The move is seen as a shot at China’s DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of small unmanned air systems (sUAS), and covers a plethora of U.S. state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies that receive funds from the OJP to buy equipment or fund programs. OJP has an annual budget of $1.13 billion.
Though the order doesn’t specifically cover technology for larger autonomous aircraft originating in states deemed to have hostile intentions, the move raises questions about whether the U.S. government may take wider action to block such technology. During a launch event for the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program to promote the development of eVTOL aircraft and advanced air mobility applications, several speakers made a case for keeping what they called “adversarial capital” out of the U.S. market and allowing only “trusted” investors, making it clear that they were referring to Chinese companies. Some speakers argued that Chinese companies had been allowed to become overly dominant in the U.S. recreational drone market and that this should not be allowed to happen in other sectors of autonomous aviation.
More recently, the Trump administration has floated the possibility of de-listing Chinese companies from U.S. stock markets. Both moves would potentially impact companies such as EHang, which in late 2019 raised capital for its eVTOL program via an initial public offering on the NASDAQ exchange in New York.
In early January 2020, EHang conducted flight trials with its 216 Autonomous Aerial Vehicle in North Carolina with the full support of state officials and the FAA. However, since then, the Chinese company has not commented on further plans in the U.S. and has, instead, emphasized eVTOL early-adoption operations in various Chinese cities. It also has expanded its network of international partnerships, mainly in Europe.
DJI has steadfastly denied that its drones, estimated to comprise 70 percent of the world’s commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) installed inventory, pose a security threat. Following the OJP order, the company issued the following statement: “This Justice Department order will deprive hundreds of public safety agencies of a lifesaving tool and put our communities’ emergency workers in harm’s way, much like the Interior Department’s drone policies have made it riskier to fight wildfires. There are serious consequences to these protectionist policies that achieve no security benefit, as shown by the many independent and federal agency validations confirming that DJI products are safe and secure for government operations.”
The OJP orders come in the wake of the recent passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, a provision of which would ban drones from being acquired from a list of foreign countries including China. A coalition of industry groups—the Alliance for Drone Innovation—has made written to the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, appealing to them to strip the provision from the final version of the bill, arguing that it harms U.S.-based drone builders and users alike.
“By imposing a ban on the procurement and operation of foreign-made drones in the final conference report," the Alliance wrote, "this provision would be detrimental to the U.S. drone industry. While it may seem counterintuitive, we believe a ban on drones and drone components from outside America would actually hurt the development of the U.S. drone industry.” Added the Alliance: “Manufacturing a drone simply cannot be done today without parts and knowledge from all over the world.”
Concerns about security regarding the use of Chinese-made drones heightened after China enacted a national security act in 2017 that requires Chinese companies to share data with their government. A Rand Corporation study released earlier this year examined UAS vulnerabilities at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While Rand did not examine the role of China specifically, it found a “high vulnerability of commercial UAS to cyberattack” along with a threat taxonomy that includes spoofing, tampering, repudiation, information disclosure, denial of service, and elevation of privilege. “Vulnerabilities in public-use UAS are ubiquitous,” Rand concluded.
It noted that UAS vulnerabilities among U.S. agencies were not limited to DJI drones, and it went on to warn, “It will likely be more difficult to detect and respond to cyberattacks involving UAS with autonomous flight capabilities. It is more likely that no human operator will be monitoring an individual drone at any given time, making it less likely that unusual or unauthorized system behavior will be noted.”
Tracking Rand’s findings, the OJP order requires federal grant applicants to have “in place policies and procedures designed to safeguard the privacy and civil liberties and to mitigate cybersecurity risks concerning the operation and use of the unmanned aircraft system.”