An advocacy group for drone manufacturers and developers this week raised serious concerns around a clause in the proposed version of the annual defense spending bill that would ban Chinese and other foreign-made drones, arguing the ban could “hurt the drone industry.”
A clause in the House-passed 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would prohibit federal procurement or operation of certain foreign-made drones, including those from China, due to national security concerns.
The Alliance for Drone Innovation – which represents major drone-related companies, including Chinese technology group Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) – pushed back against the clause in a letter sent to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees this week.
“By imposing a ban on the procurement and operation of foreign-made drones in the final conference report, this provision would be detrimental to the U.S. drone industry,” the Alliance wrote to the lawmakers. “While it may seem counterintuitive, we believe a ban on drones and drone components from outside America would actually hurt the development of the U.S. drone industry.”
The Alliance argued that “manufacturing a drone simply cannot be done today without parts and knowledge from all over the world, and a country-based ban would hurt the Americans who build drones as well as the Americans who use them for recreation, business, conservation, and even saving lives.”
Concerns around foreign-made drones have been tied to strong efforts by the Trump administration and members of Congress to push back hard against China, zeroing in particularly on Chinese tech groups, such as social media platform TikTok and telecommunications company Huawei.
The efforts have been tied to potential data transfers to the Chinese government, raising national security concerns.
DJI, which develops a large percentage of the world’s drones, in particular has come under scrutiny. The U.S. Army banned the use of DJI drones over cybersecurity concerns in 2017, though a report published in June by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton found no evidence of any unauthorized data transfers, and DJI has consistently pushed back against concerns.
The Alliance argued Thursday that by banning Chinese-made drones, the federal government would be left with fewer, more expensive options, and highlighted the ability for drones to help in rescue efforts.
“In order for U.S. companies to thrive and compete, and to enjoy access to the parts and components they need to build drones and their accessories, we respectfully ask that you forego inclusion of this section in the conference report to accompany the FY 2021 NDAA,” the Alliance wrote in the letter obtained by The Hill. “We share concerns about the safety and security of all Americans, but this amendment is not the answer.
“We welcome the opportunity to speak with you anytime about a solution that meets your goals, while preserving the global supply chain that is critical to the lifeblood of our companies,” the group added.
The Senate and the House are currently in the process of negotiating what to include in a conferenced version of the 2021 NDAA after both chambers approved their bills in July.