Agency leaders green-lit the purchases in July despite warnings from DHS and outside experts that Beijing might collect data from the drones.
The Interior Department on Wednesday announced it will ground all drones that were manufactured in China or contain Chinese-made parts, pending a review of the agency’s growing unmanned aircraft program.
The decision comes months after agency officials approved purchases of aircraft built by DJI, a Chinese firm that many national security experts see as a potential conduit for government espionage. When authorizing the procurements, the agency took multiple technical precautions to ensure DJI couldn’t access the data collected through the aircraft.
The order to ground Chinese drones wouldn’t apply to aircraft the agency is currently using “for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property,” Interior spokesperson Melissa Brown said in a statement to Nextgov.
In May, the Homeland Security Department warned companies their data could be at risk if they use Chinese drones, and the Army previously banned soldiers from using any unmanned aircraft manufactured by DJI.
In a recent Senate hearing, national security experts warned lawmakers that drone manufacturers like DJI collect “an unprecedented level” of intelligence on America’s physical, social and economic infrastructure, which could potentially help the Chinese obtain an economic and military advantage. They compared the threats to those posed by Huawei, the Chinese telecom titan the White House is trying to effectively blacklist from U.S. markets.
Over the past three years, Interior has increasingly turned to unmanned aircraft to survey federal lands, monitor wildlife, respond to natural disasters and conduct other critical operations. The tech offers the agency an inexpensive, efficient way to manage the 500 million acres of land under its purview, and by 2025, officials expect to more than triple their annual drone missions.
At the end of 2018, only 13% of the nearly 600 drones in Interior’s fleet were manufactured by DJI. But as the agency looked to significantly scale up its operations in the years ahead, the company’s cheap prices and significantmarket-share made it an increasingly attractive vendor, Mark Bathrick, director of Interior’s Office of Aviation Services, told Nextgov in July.
Over the summer, the agency authorized the purchase of two specific models of DJI drones outfitted with custom hardware, software and firmware designed to prevent the firm from secretly exfiltrating data from the aircraft. The so-called “Government Edition” build was also air-gapped from the department’s IT infrastructure and the public internet, and subjected to 15 months of security testing prior to the authorization.
The agency wouldn’t comment on the rationale behind the order to ground the aircraft.
In a statement to Nextgov, a DJI spokesperson said the company would support Interior during the review "so the agency can quickly resume the use of drones to help federal workers conduct vital operations.”