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House committee advances drone legislation

House committee advances drone legislation
© Greg Nash

The House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday unanimously voted to advance two bills related to drones, blocking purchases of them from certain countries and creating a position at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to counter associated threats.

The “Drone Origin Security Enhancement Act” prohibits the DHS secretary from “operat[ing], provid[ing] financial assistance for, or enter[ing] into or renew[ing] a contract for the procurement” of unmanned aircraft systems from countries labeled as strategic competitors by the Department of Defense.

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If approved, the bill would block DHS purchases from China’s DJI Technologies, the world’s largest manufacturer of drones.

“Numerous reports over the last few years suggest Chinese-made drones could potentially be used to send sensitive flight information to China-based companies where it could be easily accessed by the Chinese government,” Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawChanging suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Biden, Democrats see late opportunity in Texas Dan Crenshaw releases Hollywood-type action movie trailer MORE (R-Texas) said during a committee vote on Wednesday.

Although the U.S. military has banned DJI drone purchases over security concerns, several other government agencies have made big purchases from the Chinese firm.

The Department of Interior has more than 500 DJI drones at its disposal for monitoring federal land and natural resources.

Local government entities, like the Los Angeles Fire Department, also rely on the drones produced in China.

"We are deeply disappointed in this move because it broadly and unfairly targets technology manufactured in China and would prevent the Department of Homeland Security from using the industry’s most advanced drone and drone-detection technology — which it already relies on – to support vital operations," an official for DJI told The Hill.

"The most effective solution would require technology providers to meet clear standards for functionality, safety, and security before government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, can use drone technology in their operations."

The firm controlled 74 percent of global market share in drone sales in 2018, according to Skylogic Research.

Waivers for drones produced in strategic competitor nations, such as Russia, would be available on a case-by-case basis and require from both the House and Senate Homeland Security committees.

The drone origin bill comes amid government wide scrutiny of contracts with Chinese firms over concerns that Beijing may access sensitive information.

The House panel also advanced a bill Wednesday that would create a role in the DHS for a “Countering Unmanned Aircraft Systems Coordinator.”

The official would be tasked with countering threats associated with drones, promoting anti-drone tech research and coordinating with the private sector.