We've covered the politics surrounding Chinese-made drones – especially on a state-by-state-basis – before, but this week the National Security Drone Act of 2023 was passed by Congress and handed to President Biden to sign into law, with potentially devastating effects on the business of DJI and Autel.
Since DJI was added to the American 'Entity List' in 2020 it has found it difficult to sell drones to the US for various government customers, and that is now a very broad definition of government, including regional police stations as well as military operations. This law formalises the blacklist, all on the spurious and unproven ground that data sent from drones is used by the Chinese government for spying.
This is because the Chinese government can ask to access the data belonging to the companies, and of course, drones do tend to share data of flight records etc. unless disabled by the customer as part of the firmware maintenance program. The reality is that US-China relations aren't the best. It is also true that there doesn't seem to be much the major parties can agree on as an election looms, so targeting successful foreign industries is an easy win.
Unlike the Floridian $200m unfunded mandate, in which taxpayers effectively saw drones they bought thrown away for no good reason save to advance the political career of Ron DeSantis, there is some connection between this new law and the $886.3 billion National Defense Authorization Act, so it is possible that some consideration has been made in Washington about
This doesn't mean DJI users will immediately be grounded, though there is a proposed law doing the rounds in Washington, which threatens exactly that; the Countering CCP Drones Bill. Instead, this law is about procurement. The American lobbying association AUVSI (Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International) which has existed since the Vietnam War – has been very enthusiastic about this: "AUVSI commends Congress for incorporating the American Security Drone Act into the FY 2024 NDAA. Prohibiting federal agencies from purchasing or operating non-secure drones, especially those produced by Chinese firms, is a necessary step in protecting our nation from cyber risks, espionage, and sabotage…"
This will also help out US companies which weren't able to compete on technical quality, meaning American agencies will likely have to use technically inferior drones that don't face a true competitive market. Consumers are, for now, OK as they can still choose DJI but, in the long run, have a real headache since promising American companies like Skydio have ditched consumers but also have no worries about orders for their X10 coming in as plenty of US customers cannot buy from elsewhere even if they wanted to.
The worry for users of DJI and Autel drones must be that AUVSI and its backers don't stop here, and jump on legislation like the Countering CCP Drones Bill. Clearly going that far would impinge on the freedom of individual drone users to choose the best craft and to operate it as they choose. It might even open up some questions about international aviation law. I hope it doesn't come go far, but sometimes you give people – especially politicians – an inch and they'll ban a whole mile.