Editor’s Note: Our recent webinar saw numerous audience questions come in that were focused on how United States-based operators and organizations can move forward with the adoption of foreign-made drone technology in light of heightened security concerns. To explore these issues and indirectly answer these questions, we reached out to three experts for their perspective. Below is an “American drone industry” perspective. You can also read a “user” perspective as well as a “foreign-made drone manufacturer” perspective that are designed to provide essential context around how operators and organizations can consider such things as they move forward with drone adoption in 2020 and beyond.

Over the past several years, the heat has been on Chinese drone manufacturing giant Da Jiang Innovations (DJI). Numerous U.S. government agencies have instituted policy bans on DJI and Chinese drone purchases and use including the Departments of Defense (DoD), Department of Justice (DoJ), Interior (DoI), and presumably Homeland Security (DHS), who has been issuing warnings to others over the past year. Add to this a draft Executive Order that’s purportedly making its rounds in D.C. Meanwhile, Congress continues to mount its own offensive to ban Chinese drones. Some have decried these efforts as unwarranted political maneuvers that will kill public safety drone programs and in turn, the commercial drone industry. How legitimate are these concerns, and do they actually represent an opportunity in disguise for the market?

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In today’s tense geopolitical and national environment, battle lines have been drawn on many issues. In the United States, however, there is one issue that is completely bipartisan: the need for a strong domestic drone industry. This universal call from the Executive, national security agencies and Congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle transcends partisan politics. That’s an undisputed fact.

The real debate has been about the open source information used to justify concerns about back-door foreign intelligence collection through drones.  A variety of political sources have discussed this threat, which you can see firsthand in a National Public Radio (NPR) interview with Senator Mark Warner (D-Va) from May of 2019 as well as in testimony from DJI VP of Policy and Legal Affairs, Brendan Schulman, which he gave before the U.K. Defense Committee of Parliament in June of 2019. In August 2019, DoD UnderSecretary for Defense Acquisition and Sustainment released statements that reiterated in a December 2019 press briefing and DJI's privacy policy itself. The potential security threat has also been explored in great detail on a technical level, as River Loop Security’s analysis of DJI’s Mimo app is especially eye opening.  

On the other hand, there have been plenty of counter-narratives to these perceived threats, one being the recent example DJI provided that was designed to highlight how the company respects the data security of its customers. The company has previously laid out why they believe the U.S. government’s concerns about DJI drones have little to do with security, while others have made an active effort to debunk security rumors.

The debate about whether this is more about politics or technology will continue, but the U.S. position and response has been clear and unified. The United States government doesn’t really want to sort through the logistics of allowing foreign-made drones to be utilized by their agencies; it wants to adopt and support technology that is American-made.

In June 2019, the President of the U.S. (POTUS) issued Presidential Determination (No. 2019-3), a finding under the Defense Production Act (DPA) that small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) production is critical to our national security. According to DoD’s Industrial Policy website, the related DPA program, which falls under the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, works in partnership with the military services and industry, “to identify areas where crucial industrial capacity is lagging or non-existent” and then “find, vet, and partner with selected companies to fix the problem using grants, purchase commitments, loans, or loan guarantees.”

That same month, Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (FY20 NDAA), essentially codifying DoD’s policy ban into law.  In the Conference Report for that Act, members expressed unanimous bipartisan support for the POTUS Determination No. 2019–3 to strengthen domestic production of the sUAS industry and encouraged the SecDef to implement it aggressively.

Enter the American Security Drone Act, or ADSA, (SB 2502), which flew through the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee with unanimous bipartisan support. The UAV Coach’s solid summary of this pending legislation, provides the broad brush details. In short, after a two-year implementation horizon, it would ban federal agencies from acquiring Chinese drones and drones made with Chinese components and prohibit the use of federal grant money to buy Chinese drones or drone components. 

And then, in the midst of this domestic activity, came the pandemic and the controversial DJI give-away of 100 drones to local law enforcement and emergency services departments across the U.S. to assist with coronavirus response efforts. Congress met this seeming act of benevolence with outrage. There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, but House Judiciary Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), recently positioned these freebies not as gift horses but instead as “Trojan horses” to the 43 different law enforcement agencies across 22 states that received them.  Thirteen Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee signed out a letter to the DOJ and DHS expressing their grave concern for national security and demanding to know “how a Chinese company’s drones are being used by public safety agencies during the virus outbreak.” While some might just brush this aside as “anti-China” rhetoric, the foot stomp here is that the concerns remain bipartisan in nature. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), also labeled DJI’s program a Trojan Horse, going so far as to label the drones “a clear and present danger.”

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Assume, just for the sake of argument, that the cyber-security vulnerabilities the feds have alluded to actually exist - specifically that the Chinese government retains ultimate access to, and control over, all Chinese company information (*Fun fact - likely the public will never receive these technical details, as they are classified). What sort of advantages would access to information collected by local law enforcement and public safety organizations provide to a foreign power?

Some experts posit that information obtained from state and local authorities is at least equal, if not more critical in importance, to U.S. national security than at the federal level. Retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Poss, a leading expert on UAS and CEO of ISR Ideas, an intelligence, UAS and cyber warfare consulting company with decades of intelligence community experience, warns, “First responders know what’s going on in a city. They are an excellent source of information in peace and intelligence in war.”

According to a recently updated DHS website there are, “16 critical infrastructure sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” Those include the following sectors: chemicals, dams, communications, emergency services, financial services, government facilities, information technology, transportation systems, commercial facilities, critical manufacturing, defense industrial base, energy, food and agriculture, healthcare and public health, nukes, water and waste-water systems.  All of these sectors reside in cities, governed and protected by local authorities.

“Even the President relies on local law enforcement to augment his security when he travels,” General Poss elaborates. “Can’t backdoor into Secret Service drones anymore? No worries; the Palm Beach Sheriff’s office might have Chinese drones. It sure beats having an agent arrested and sent to prison for eight months, like what happened last year.

To be sure, intelligence collection often involves multiple sources of information. Even if the trip-wire is unwittingly backing up data overseas, such information, when pieced together, could provide a comprehensive picture that enables tactical, operational or strategic advantage. Information, from any source, is a valuable commodity. More information is better than less. Intel 101.

Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems.

- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

According to a poll conducted by DRONERESPONDERS in October 2019, DJI has the corner on 77% of the public safety drone industry. Cut out Chinese drones, cut out the only viable drone being used for public safety. Is all that remains just a double-edged sword?

Even if the ADSA should become law (which is likely, by the way), it would not eviscerate local law enforcement. Because state governments are independent from the federal government with respect to dollars, guidance and Congressional oversight, the reach of the proposed ADSA only goes so far. It would only restrict federal agencies, and only those state/local governments which receive federal grants from purchasing Chinese drones, comm links or other components that control UAS.  The impact on non-feds appears to be minimal because they are not currently flush with federal grant dollars. A recent survey from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College found only 80 of 283 law enforcement agencies purchased drones with unspecified grants, which could include non-federal sources such as from philanthropic organizations or non-profits. Thus, it appears an overwhelming number of local agencies will still be free to continue using whatever drone they have on hand or to buy whichever drone they so desire.

But for the U.S. commercial drone industry, perhaps this is a golden opportunity. History tells us that the way things are now are not necessarily the way they will always be. Recall more than a decade ago Nokia had the corner on the mobile phone-making market;  they were irreplaceable. Then along came Apple and Android, who completely crushed the tech giant. Does anyone today even remember their Nokia phone? 

There is certainly a hunger for “Made in America” drones. The DRONERESPONDERS report found that "88%, (196 of the 224 public safety respondents)" would purchase a drone from a company headquartered in the U.S. if all else were equal.

Charles Werner, Director, DRONERESPONDERS, suggests we need some good old-fashioned American innovation to take hold. “Simply banning these assets without a viable replacement, in terms of price point and operability, is a non-starter,” he says. If the ADSA passes, Werner suggests, “We need to use those two years before implementation wisely, by providing incentives and subsidies to U.S. drone supply chain and manufacturers, to balance the playing field. Until that happens, unfortunately, public safety agencies will have little incentive to switch out their drone fleets.” He highly recommends that public safety agencies stay updated on this legislation to understand how it will impact their agency.

Are there ASDA-compliant (aka, no foreign controllers or comm links) contenders who can shake up this market right now? Not many. Right now, Skydio is the largest U.S. drone manufacturer by a large margin, whose drones have both a high level of supply chain security and the type of autonomous functionality that law enforcement professionals need. Brendan Groves, Head of Regulatory and Policy Affairs for Skydio, a former Air Force Judge Advocate and Associate Deputy Attorney General at DoJ explains, “Skydio drones allow law enforcement to focus on the mission while the drone focuses on the flying.” This is exactly why safety and security programs across the U.S. are increasingly turning to them for their drone solutions.  “Manually flown drones made by Chinese companies dominated the first decade of drones,” Groves said. “Autonomy and automation will define the next decade. Skydio is on the leading edge of this new paradigm, which will uniquely benefit American companies with expertise in next-generation artificial intelligence technology.”

People clearly want U.S. manufactured drones, and the U.S., through PD No. 2019-3, has committed to providing them. So where’s the progress?  Is a SecDef-driven ramp-up under the DPA coming soon? Unclear. When it does, it will likely ignite the domestic drone industry. (*Another Fun Fact - for more details, see General Poss’ coverage of where the DoD is going with drones in Inside Unmanned Systems magazine).

Whether you believe the threat is real or not, the current whole-of-government approach, when combined with robust public-private partnerships, could be a game changer for U.S. drone makers. What exactly will that look like? How can it best be supported? These are the questions that the United States government is saying they will put dollars against to have answered, which might be what pushes the domestic commercial drone industry to new heights.

Read the next article in this series by Grant Guillot here.