Interior planning to halt use of drones over concerns about Chinese tech: report

Interior planning to halt use of drones over concerns about Chinese tech: report
© Greg Nash

The Interior Department is planning to halt the use of almost 1,000 drones over concerns that some of the parts were developed in China, the Financial Times reported Sunday.

The administration would be stopping its biggest civilian drone programs in fear that China could use the drones for spying, two people briefed on the plans told the Times. The department announced the grounding of the 810 drones amid security investigations in October. 

Several in the department’s staff have condemned the grounding saying it will cost the department large amounts of time and money. Documents obtained by the Times showed staff from various agencies objected to the proposed grounding. 

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“Unmanned aircraft systems are a unique tool that fit into this mission and allow us to make high-quality surface observations at a fraction of the price of manned aircraft operations,” a staff member wrote in an email obtained by the Times. 

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has not officially signed on the grounding, but people briefed with his thinking told the Times he is expected to take the civilian drones out of circulation, except for emergencies like managing wildfires and for training.

The Hill reached out to the Interior Department for comment.

The department utilizes drones to monitor wildfires, map terrain and track natural resources. Without drones, the department will need to fly more manned aircraft, which is more expensive and more dangerous, sources told the Times.

The U.S. government has taken several precautions in recent months to avoid potential Chinese spying, including warning civilians with drones that their photos could be accessed in China. 

The U.S. has forbidden drones by DJI, a company that develops 70 percent of the world’s civilian drones, and Congress is also considering banning Chinese-made drones from being used by the U.S. government. The government has hoped to create a fully American-made drone, but officials told the Times it will take years to develop. 

DJI sent the Times a statement saying, “While we have not seen the new policy, we look forward to reviewing the findings of DOI’S comprehensive review of its drone programme, given the lack of credible evidence to support a broad country-of-origin restriction on drone technology.”