Before DJI, a Chinese drone company, was named a national security threat, it was the darling of the U.S. government, used by federal agencies, the military and more than 900 local and state law enforcement and emergency service agencies. In fact, the company so dominates the global market for small drones that even though parts of the national security establishment have worked to block it, other federal agencies have continued to embrace DJI drones and order more, arguing that their operations depended on them. The contrast reveals just how inconsistent and uncoordinated implementation of the U.S. government’s China policy has been, and how a “national security threat” can, at times, be in the eye of the beholder.
Government scrutiny first fell on DJI in August 2017, when the Army and Immigration and Customs Enforcement wrote memos saying the drones might constitute a security risk, and escalated quickly from there. The following May, the Department of Defense ordered a review of the small drones and required special approval to purchase more. By last September, a bipartisan group of senators had introduced a bill to ban federal spending on Chinese drones, and by December, Congress had banned the military from buying drones with components made in China or by a Chinese company without a special exemption.
While some federal agencies fell in line — the Interior Department grounded its DJI drones, which it relied on to execute controlled burns and fight wildfires, last October — others did not. The Federal Bureau of Investigation bought DJI drones this past August, and as recently as mid-September, the military put out a solicitation for new DJI drones. Foreign governments still use DJI drones given to them by the State Department, a department official told The Wire.
The fact that agencies tasked with national security use drones that Congress and other parts of the Trump administration have deemed a security threat speaks to both DJI’s market power — the U.S. still lacks a ready alternative — and the federal government’s inability to agree on and implement a uniform China policy. It also reflects a widespread concern that when it comes to China, the lines between politics and national security can get blurred.
“The U.S. national security community, for all its concern about risks, is not at all consistent or thorough about going through and mitigating those risks in some cases,” said Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who studies technology and national security. “There does not appear to be evidence that DJI necessarily has close links to the Party-state or military more so than other Chinese companies,” Kania added, noting that all Chinese companies are vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.
As lawmakers debate whether to block DJI, the moves against it are already having real-world consequences. After the Interior Department grounded DJI drones, it only conducted a fraction of the controlled burns it otherwise would have carried out because it does not have other drones to perform fire management tasks. It also stopped fulfilling orders for new DJI drones and cancelled training sessions — a move the department’s analysts said put firefighters at risk, according to an internal memo, reviewed by The Wire. When historic wildfires broke out across the western United States this summer, the Interior Department was less equipped to fight fires. Even though it made an exception and used its DJI drones to fight the fires, the cancelled training sessions and unfilled orders meant it had only a fraction of the drones it otherwise would have had.
“All that risk and exposure we pulled away from pilots and people on the ground [by using drones], we threw back on them without any reasonable explanation or replacement,” said Gary Baumgartner, who worked for the Interior Department for three decades in fire management before leaving last year to found Global UAS Solutions, which offers drone training for firefighting. He added the department should have developed a replacement system before shutting out DJI.
“Would fire season 2020 have been significantly different had the Department of the Interior been allowed to do the things they planned to do? I don’t know for sure. But even if the ban didn’t have a significant impact, down the road it will have a significant impact,” Baumgartner said. He noted that his colleagues who flew DJI drones for firefighting missions thought they were safe, and the ban was seen as political. The security argument “is kind of ridiculous for our job,” he added.
Using helicopters instead of drones to fight fires “puts helicopter pilots and crews at higher risk, absolutely,” said Jake Sjolund, tactical air chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Controlled burning and firefighting missions are among the most dangerous for helicopter crews, he added.
DJI was founded in 2006 by Wang Tao, a Hangzhou native who built helicopter components as a hobby while a college student in Hong Kong. Within a few years, the company, which was established across the Hong Kong border, in the city of Shenzhen, became the undisputed leader in the field of small drones, with the ability to capture high quality images and video from the air. Backed by venture capital firms from Silicon Valley, DJI has grown into a powerhouse, with about three quarters of the world’s consumer drone market. It also broke into the commercial drone market
In 2017, Forbes crowned Wang Asia’s youngest tech billionaire. The next year, his company was valued at $15 billion, according to Pitchbook, which tracks startups, making it one of China’s biggest unicorns. Today, DJI employs about 14,000 people around the world. Analysts estimate it does about $1 billion of business every year in the United States, mostly in the consumer market, with a market share approaching 80 percent.
You might not notice that DJI is a Chinese company if you buy a drone on its website, but the company said it has always been transparent about its origins. “In every meeting we have, we’re very upfront that we’re a Chinese company, founded in China, and we’re proud of that,” said Michael Oldenburg, a DJI spokesperson.
But many Chinese brands operating overseas, particularly in the United States, are now trying to distance themselves from China. “In the current climate, any Chinese tech company that has become dominant outside of China has a target on its back,” said Samm Sacks, a research fellow focused on cybersecurity and China’s new economy at New America, a Washington think tank.
DJI eventually found itself in the crosshairs of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who introduced a bill to prohibit the federal government from using drones with components made in China in September 2019. In a statement provided to The Wire, Scott’s office said: “For far too long, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to Communist China and allowed their technology, which is being used to spy on American citizens, to access some of the most critical operations of the U.S. Government. This has to stop.”
When asked for evidence that using DJI drones is a national security risk, Sen. Scott’s office did not offer any details, but added: “The American people are waking up to the threat from Communist China and their puppets which is, I’m sure, why DJI is getting desperate.” Sen. Murphy declined to comment, but a Senate aide said Sen. Murphy is not hawkish on China and his targeting of DJI drones reflects strong intelligence information.
If there is classified information about the threats posed by DJI, it has not convinced the entire military. After being blocked by Defense Department leadership and Congress, the individual services still bought DJI drones by using “special exemptions granted by the Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment office on a case by case basis to support urgent needs,” a Defense Department spokesperson told The Wire. The services are required to certify the acquisition “is required in the national interest” to receive an exemption.
Some of those exemptions were for drones used by the Special Operations Command. “We implemented software fixes to address cybersecurity issues,” said Lieutenant Commander Timothy Hawkins, a Command spokesperson in Tampa, Florida, adding that the Command’s use of DJI products did not compromise national security. In September, the Air Force requested quotes for 57 DJI Mavic 2 drones that would support the Special Operations Command.
Amidst the confusion, DJI tried to appease concerns to save its government business. It built a “government edition” drone that operated offline to meet Interior Department requirements. Testing conducted by Idaho National Laboratory for the Department of Homeland Security found no data leakage from the DJI models used by the Interior Department, suggesting a third party couldn’t use the drones to spy.
To help assuage concerns, DJI developed a feature for its consumer model to fly without connecting to the internet. And it spent about $1.7 million to lobby Washington lawmakers over the past year, ending in June, according to federal lobbying records.
Still, the House version of this year’s national defense bill, which will be merged with the Senate’s and voted on later this year, contains a provision that would ban the use of federal funds to purchase Chinese drones.
“If someone is always going to be skeptical of a company or a product because it’s Chinese, there’s really nothing we can do about that,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI’s New York office, even though “the technology simply isn’t in a position to steal your data.”
According to Dave Whitmer, who worked in fire management at the Interior Department for 30 years before retiring last year to found Global UAS Solutions with Baumgartner, the Defense Department told the Interior Department that it would provide evidence that the DJI drones posed a threat, but never did. Whitmer expressed disappointment at this failing, and then frustration when The Wire described records showing the Defense Department continued to buy DJI drones, even after the Interior Department stopped.
“I’m just speechless,” said Baumgartner. “It’s so frustrating. It takes away a tool that enhances our ability to put fires out and mitigate the risk while doing so.”
Eli Binder is a New York-based staff writer for The Wire. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, in Hong Kong and Singapore, as an Overseas Press Club Foundation fellow. @ebinder21