The U.S. Interior Department Has Grounded Its Fleet of 800 Drones, Fearing Chinese Surveillance

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On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior (DOI) grounded nearly its entire fleet of drones fearing the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are mostly made in China, might pose a threat to U.S. national security.

The DOI, which is responsible for maintaining federal land, uses a fleet
of 810 drones to help in tasks such as monitoring floods and fires, inspecting
dams and property, and tracking endangered species. At least 15% of the drones used
by the DOI are manufactured entirely by Shenzhen-based DJI, the world’s largest
supplier of drones, while the remainder are all made in China or contain
China-made parts.

U.S. lawmakers have been lobbying government departments, to abandon
Chinese made drones, fearing the UAVs could be sending data—such as images and
geofence locations—to the Chinese government. In July, after resisting pressure
to simply blockade Chinese tech, the DOI concluded a 15-month long review and
announced it had developed strategies to ensuring drone data didn’t leak.

Last month, however, Senators introduced a new bill—the American
Security Drone Act 2019
—that would force all federal departments to stop
using Chinese drones. Perhaps preemptively, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt
announced Wednesday that all drones not currently being used for emergency
measures‚ such as combating wildfires, would be grounded pending further

“Until this
review is completed, the Secretary has directed that drones manufactured in
China or made from Chinese components be grounded unless they are currently
being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and
rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property,”
a DOI spokesperson said in a statement.

The DOI’s drone-grounding is the
latest move from the U.S. government to push out Chinese tech. China telecoms
manufacturer Huawei has faced a number of roadblocks in the U.S. including,
most recently, being placed on the Department of Commerce’s “entity
list, which prevents U.S. companies from selling to the Chinese phone maker.

Early this month, the White House
placed 28
more Chinese
companies on the blacklist, including China’s most promising
A.I. firms, Sensetime and Megvii. The U.S. government’s apparent vendetta against
Chinese tech has intensified as the trade war—a key complaint of which is China’s
use of “forced technology transfers” to gain expertise—drags on.

Responding to news of the DOI’s
no-fly policy, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang urged Washington to  “stop abusing the concept of national security”
and provide a non-discriminatory atmosphere for Chinese companies.

Meanwhile DJI said it was “disappointed” by the development but would “continue to support the Department of Interior and provide any assistance we can as it reviews its drone fleet and so the agency can quickly resume the use of its drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”

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