KEY POINTS

  • The Interior Department has a fleet of 800 drones
  • DJI hardware made in China has sparked data collection fears
  • The army stopped using DJI drones in 2017 due to similar fears

The U.S. Interior Department is currently probing all civilian drone programs, which have used technology made by Chinese company DJI because of increasing concerns of them posing a national security risk.

The concerns have led the department to halt a drone program employing 1,000 drones to help monitor endangered species, inspect federally protected areas and fight wildfires.

According to a new report, the program may now be permanently shut due to fears of Chinese interference and access to sensitive data. The Financial Times reported Sunday that the department has ascertained a high-level risk that these drones could be used for spying.

In what may seem a repeat of the Trump administration’s policy on Chinese 5G tech and surveillance equipment, a rider has been issued against the use of Chinese technology. Chinese drone maker DJI, just like other manufacturers has called the move arbitrary and stated that it is eager to look at the interior department’s review and find the “lack of credible evidence” behind the move.

The move, however, hasn’t come out of the blue. Drones can, if not properly regulated, have access to protected areas such as Area 51 and risk revealing sensitive information to China. This is the reason that the U.S. Army stopped using DJI drones since 2017. The Department of Homeland Security has stated that the drones were feeding critical data related to law enforcement and infrastructure to Chinese officials.

Despite these assertions, the administration is yet to provide public information about such spying activities.

Shutting down the program will actually affect the helpful use of drones, which would have made a large difference to the initiatives such as protection of endangered species.

The Financial Times has accessed documents that show that the functions of the fish and wildlife departments have been hampered due to the halt on the use of drones. The departments have canceled animal counts and controlled burning, while geological surveys for agricultural monitoring, earthquake and flood monitoring have also been affected adversely.