Like Your DJI Drone? Tell the Feds to Back Off.

    I’ve been eyeing the DJI Mini 4 Pro since it launched. I’ve almost pulled the trigger on it twice. But I’ve held off knowing that both the House and the Senate have, for years now, considered banning the brand in the U.S.

    They’ve already restricted or banned use of DJI drones by many government agencies and first responders, and now House Bill HR 2864 (Countering CCP Drones Act) wants to ban all new DJI drones and possibly retroactively ground all currently owned DJI drones regardless of whether they’re for personal and professional use.

    Wait, what? Why ban DJI?

    At the heart of it is fear-mongering based on an anti-China sentiment. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about China spying on the US (We’ve already banned certain Chinese telecom brands, but also, it’s complicated and it can get weird). But does that mean we need to ban all technology made in China? No. I mean, hello, iPhones?

    Should we single out DJI in particular just because their drones (like all drones) use and transmit GPS data to operate? Absolutely not.

    But that’s the general rallying cry around banning them. Using a similar logic as the proposed TikTok bans, which absolutely does capture and store user data, Congress is saying that DJI captures user data, and that that data is available to the Chinese government, essentially allowing them to surveil US territory and our behaviors.

    Proponents (i.e. Internet commenters) argue that the drones’ LIDAR (used for obstacle avoidance) is essentially mapping our terrain for China, and that flight logs add more data to the mix. DJI maintains this isn’t the case, and that users can opt out of data collection entirely and restrict all data to the local device. Enterprise users can even use 3rd party flight software to control the drone, opting out of DJI’s app entirely.

    Graphic from DJI’s Instagram.

    What does the Countering CCP Drones Act do?

    The act adds DJI to the FCC’s “Covered List”, which means the agency would not be allowed to approve any device made by DJI. It also means it can’t approve any software made to operate on a DJI drone, regardless of who makes that software, even if they’re based in the U.S.

    The 3rd party (independent, non-partisan) Drone Advocacy Alliance estimates this would have a devastating impact overall, saying:

    “The “Countering CCP Drones Act” would have a massive impact on the drone industry writ large and even the broader U.S. economy. According to a 2023 economic impact analysis by John Dunham & Associates, removing DJI and its products from the market would result in the closure of 67% of American small drone businesses and the loss of more than 450,000 U.S. jobs. In addition, cutting the leading manufacturer out of the drone market would lead to rising costs and product shortages for all users. It also takes a life-saving tool out of the hands of first responders, putting lives on the line. Further, this legislation would expand the authority of the FCC to include the developers of software that operates on DJI equipment, even U.S. software developers.”

    OK, but is DJI really safe to use?

    Rather than paraphrase, here’s the statement from the DAA website:

    First, DJI drones feature a default “opt-in” approach to sharing photos, videos or flight logs – if users do not want to share that data with DJI, they don’t have to. By default, flight logs, photos, videos, and mobile data – across consumer and enterprise drones – are not synced with DJI. If an operator does wish to store their flight logs, photos and videos, it is kept in U.S.-based servers such as AWS.

    Additionally, DJI drones feature a “Local Data Mode” which severs the connection between their flight app and the internet. When Local Data Mode is on, the app will close all data services and will not send any network requests. When users capture photos and videos, the data is stored locally on SD cards. What’s more, DJI enterprise operators can bypass the DJI flight app entirely by using third-party software, including software provided by American companies. Unfortunately, even these companies could be subject to the “Countering CCP Drones Act.”

    And both the US Government and 3rd party organizations have verified that, when users opt out of data sharing, that DJI’s equipment, software, and online services do not transmit any such information and pose no security risk.

    Who cares, I’ll just buy a different brand of drone.

    Good luck.

    Skydio made waves a few years ago with their consumer drone promising next-level obstacle avoidance and subject tracking, but then dropped out of the consumer market altogether. Autel and others don’t even come close to DJI’s technology, features, and pricing.

    The truth is that nothing on the market, whether for Consumer or Professional use, comes close to offering the features, technology, ease of use, or competitive pricing of DJI.

    And that’s a big part of the rub. First responders and other emergency services are being forced to pay more for sub-par equipment, which literally translates into life/property loss and/or worse service at higher costs to taxpayers.

    Consumers have, thus far, been immune to it. But these new regulations would give the FCC the new power to retroactively de-authorize previously approved electronics based solely on where they are made. Meaning, your current DJI drones might become illegal to fly, but also this could set a precedent for other retroactive bans. And unlike the funding provided to “rip and replace” critical telecom infrastructure, it’s unlikely the FCC will authorize any funds to replace your private-use drones.

    Like conspiracy theories?

    There are a few.

    One is that DJI’s U.S.-based competition is pushing this agenda to force DJI out of the market. True or not, the absence of a leading competitor will definitely NOT incentivize others to level up. This means U.S. consumers (i.e. you and me) will be stuck with lower quality, higher priced options just because they’re made outside of China (although I’d wager some of their electronics are coming from abroad…possibly China).

    Others say this is a clear signal that the U.S. government expects China to make bigger, bolder moves in the near future, and that we’re simply being proactive. Maybe. We’ve already started limiting exports of our own technology in an effort to curtail China’s ability to advance its own manufacturing, AI, and other technological progress. Limiting potential access to localized data is another step in that direction because, honestly, it’s probably easier than convincing every DJI user to opt out of data sharing.

    What can I do?

    If you like DJI drones, want to keep using them, and maintain consumer choice, reach out to your Senators and Representatives and let them know that you oppose HR 2864. This form makes it quick and easy (30 seconds). Best to do it before June 12, 2024, when a vote is expected in the House.

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