Should Foreign Drones Be Banned?

A ban of drones from overseas would be one surefire way to nip 70-80% of the rogue drone problems right in the bud. Alternatively, maybe as a compromise, the Government should just reclassify any imported toy with more than two propellers and over 250 grams as an aircraft, registering and taxing accordingly. Either of those hypotheticals would undoubtedly translate into a considerable drop in flights in and around airports, prisons, or cartel drug and human smuggling use at the border.

This question has been floating around since before the DoD issued guidance to stop using DJI products. ICE published their document, and the din of ban Chinese drones (DJI) has been getting louder—and not just from those folks, but others in Federal LE circles. It is even been suggested that DHS is even considering a ban on grants for LE to buy foreign made drones!

One of the latest overt notices of trouble in paradise wasn’t from that obstreperous (or insert your own favourite descriptive superlative here), Egan guy, but U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT).

Murphy: “These Vulnerabilities Pose A Tremendous National Security Risk… And Without A Trusted Domestic Source Of Unmanned Aerial Systems, We Will Continue To Be Vulnerable.”

He fired off a pointed letter to the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, asking him to consider a ban on foreign-made drones for DoD use until the completion of further threat-assessments. Senator Murphy contends that at least three separate agencies have found that these drones pose a potential national security threat. Not sure if the three agencies mentioned includes ICE or not?? I believe DJI is still waiting for ICE to answer their request to verify the findings in the bulletin. However, we are unable to report on the status as we are still waiting for a SIPR drop here in the Breaking News Room at sUAS News North America. Even if we did, we would not be at liberty to confirm nor deny anything. As of July 3, ICE is still not commenting on what DJI is trying to debunk “as a conspiracy theory which as one Gizmodo writer alluded to, is possibly ginned up by President Trump himself!” Also, the Classified DoD reports were purportedly initiated under the last President, and I guess no one noticed that NASA hasn’t been working directly with DJI directly on #UTM.   

I don’t know where the wheels came off of the dog and or pony cart, but we see the ban was watered down to COTS even though some of the OEM’s caught up in the ban are US based. Who knows if it was an overzealous PR guy calling U.S. government representatives to lament the unfairness of the “conspiracy theory” or just some PC hogwash getting in the warfighter’s way again.  

The three separate agencies’ findings didn’t stop the DJI from hiring a consulting firm to investigate and produce an “independent” report that gave them the credibility boost of a Bob’s your uncle, and we all know a nod is as good as a wink to a blind bat. Who would know what questions to even investigate if you didn’t have access to the reports? We all know nobody would be stupid enough to share classified information with Chinese company representatives, right?  

The “independent” findings don’t seem to have washed with many folks outside of the Best Buy flyers and paid content selfie-drone bloggers’ circles. I don’t get why calling Becky in Shenzhen to turn off the Geofencing and her sending some sort of push to your phone and drone doesn’t give folks pause. Pause or not, I think the self-funded “independent” report idea might have washed a year or so ago, but now it’s a few months late and a couple of RMB short of plausible denial.  

“What if we were facing an all-out we’ve-had-it-with this selfie-droner-malarkey ban?” The whole ecosystem would probably collapse around the ears of the two or three cellphone app software engines that rely on Chinese hardware as the vessel of their existence.  My guess is it would be all over except for the crying for at least 70-80% of the $82 billion forecast, depending on what scientific method they are using to shovel the bull.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for an all-out ban, as I think there are potential solutions to deal with the rogues. I am all for some C-UAS solutions that work. However, it should be incumbent upon the facilities manager to develop and implement a custom security plan. We may also have to get some of the FCC rules amended or changed to make it work, and time is of the essence.  We must also keep in mind that there are plenty of applications for drones where folks don’t give a rat’s nest who’s watching (or allegedly watching) what. That may not factor in with the law enforcement folks that see these drones as a nuisance or security risk. However, the evidence chain of custody question is still just a sleeping dog lying on the porch.

I find it ironic that the drone shows are still working displays and expert Johnny-drone-lately panels talking about services done with DJI products that any Tom, Dick or Harriet with around $1000 can purchase and do. Services based on one OEM and a couple of mapping engines white-labelled by several other companies have failed to mint the forecasted unicorns, and I don’t know how long they can keep the interest of attendees.

You don’t need to have an MBA to understand that companies without revenue partnering with other companies without paying customers will not last long.  The only thing left to do is gin up a crisis and lobby a mandate up for some regulation on the hobbyists. Then you can tell the VC folks that you need another $45 million to make the cellphone apps “scale” before they catch on that this is not the BVLOS fix. Golly, imagine if a mandate went out that required an upgrade of old drones over 250 grams or, even worse, owners would have to purchase new. You rubes in the commercial drone business may wake up one day and not have a foreign hardware OEM to turn to for making your mega-billions with, or an RC hobby if the drone advocacy groups get their way.

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Patrick Egan
Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).