Interior Department’s nonemergency drones grounded due to cybersecurity concerns

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order Wednesday temporarily grounding his agency’s nonemergency drones over cybersecurity concerns.

The order applies to all the agency’s drones and other unmanned aerial systems, with the exception of those used in emergencies such as fighting wildfires or search-and-rescue situations. The order does not include a definite date for when the grounding will end. 

A spokesperson for the agency said in a statement that “drones are important to critical Department of the Interior missions, such as combating wildfires and conducting life-saving search and rescue operations; however, we must ensure that the technology used for these operations is such that it will not compromise our national security interests.”

The spokesperson noted that Bernhardt signed the order after a review of the agency’s drone program and that the drones would remain grounded until the department “reviews the possibility of threats and ensures a secure, reliable and consistent drone policy that advances our mission while keeping America safe.”

Interior wrote in the order that “protecting America’s national treasures and critical resources requires a sustained effort to securely access, collect, and maintain information, much of which is sensitive.”

In October, the department had grounded all of its drones that were either Chinese-made or had Chinese parts until a security review was completed. 

A group of Republican senators cited this decision in a letter sent to the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December, raising national security concerns about the federal government using Chinese-made drones, particularly those made by Chinese company Da Jiang Innovation (DJI).

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and John Cornyn (Texas) urged the two agencies to “immediately restrict the use of this equipment and technology that has the potential to jeopardize the security of critical information and infrastructure gained through this and other FAA programs.”

They emphasized that “American taxpayer dollars should not fund state-controlled or state-owned firms that seek to undermine American national security and economic competitiveness.”

Concerns around Chinese companies have ramped up on Capitol Hill in recent years due to a 2017 Chinese law that requires companies to participate in state intelligence work.

DJI, which develops a large percentage of the world’s drones, told The Hill in a statement on Wednesday that it was “extremely disappointed” with the Interior Department’s new order, saying the move “inappropriately treats a technology’s country of origin as a litmus test for its performance, security, and reliability.”

–Updated at 1:10 p.m. to include a statement from DJI

Tags Avionics China drones John Cornyn Marco Rubio Marsha Blackburn Tom Cotton Unmanned aerial vehicle
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