A Chinese Firm Is America’s Favorite Drone Maker — Except in Washington

A Chinese Firm Is America’s Favorite Drone Maker — Except in Washington

By Oghale Apr25,2024

The drones circled over the caves and crevices scattered around the mountain trails in northern Utah, feeding real-time video back to a search team on the ground looking for a missing hiker. Nineteen minutes later, they had her coordinates, bringing the rescue — a drill — closer to conclusion.

“In this kind of environment, that’s actually pretty quick,” said Kyle Nordfors, a volunteer search and rescue worker. He was operating one of the drones, made by the Chinese company DJI, which dominates sales to law enforcement agencies as well as the hobbyist market in the United States.

But if DJI’s drones are the tool of choice for emergency responders around the country, they are widely seen in Washington as a national security threat.

DJI is on a Defense Department list of Chinese military companies whose products the U.S. armed forces will be prohibited from purchasing in the future. As part of the defense budget that Congress passed for this year, other federal agencies and programs are likely to be prohibited from purchasing DJI drones as well.

The Treasury and Commerce Departments have penalized DJI over the use of its drones for spying on Uyghur Muslims who are held in camps by Chinese officials in Xinjiang Province. Researchers have found that Beijing could potentially exploit vulnerabilities in an app that controls the drone to gain access to large amounts of personal information, although a U.S. official said there are currently no known vulnerabilities that have not been patched.

Now Congress is weighing legislation that could kill much of DJI’s commercial business in the United States by putting it on a Federal Communications Commission roster blocking it from running on the country’s communications infrastructure.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, has been met with a muscular lobbying campaign by DJI. The company is hoping that Americans like Mr. Nordfors who use its products will help persuade lawmakers that the United States has nothing to fear — and much to gain — by keeping DJI drones flying.

But the influence campaign is facing a skeptical audience.

“DJI presents an unacceptable national security risk, and it is past time that drones made by Communist China are removed from America,” Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in an emailed statement this month.

Government agencies have shown that DJI drones are providing data on “critical infrastructure” in the United States to the Chinese Communist Party, Ms. Stefanik said, without elaborating. “Any attempt to claim otherwise is a direct result of DJI’s lobbying efforts.”

The bill that would effectively ground DJI drones, known as the Countering CCP Drones Act, was passed unanimously by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month. The legislation could come to a floor vote in the House in the next month or two, said a lobbyist and a China expert who had been briefed on the plans, as part of what they described as a planned “China week” during which a number of curbs on the country’s business operations in the United States could be considered.

The bill is also likely to find backers in the Senate, which has introduced a variety of restrictions on Chinese-made drones in recent years.

In the midst of the 2024 campaign, both parties are eager to show they are tough on China. The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would force ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the popular social media network TikTok, to sell the app within a year or cease to operate in the United States. President Biden signed it into law on Wednesday.

Like TikTok, DJI drones are widely popular in the United States. David Benowitz, a former DJI employee who works for the U.S. drone maker BRINC, estimated that DJI drones accounted for 58 percent of the commercial market in 2022. There is no precise and recent data for DJI’s popularity among law enforcement agencies, but a Bard College study from 2020 that drew from F.A.A. records pegged the company’s share at 90 percent.

DJI’s lobbying efforts have drawn on grass-roots support from users who fear that a ban of the company’s drones would be disruptive and expensive, especially since U.S. suppliers have not proven they can compete on cost or quality.

“Beyond the national security risks these drones pose, we need a robust and competitive American drone industry,” Representative John Moolenaar, Republican of Michigan and the chairman of the House committee on competition between the United States and China, said in a statement.

DJI spent $1.6 million on lobbying last year, according to Open Secrets, which tracks money in politics. The company has spent at least $310,000 so far this year, according to its Senate lobbying disclosures. Some of those dollars have helped set up meetings with lawmakers for emergency responders who use DJI’s drones.

The company has also funded a website called the Drone Advocacy Alliance, according to Vic Moss and Chris Fink, two drone users who manage the site. Its aim is partly to raise awareness about the Countering CCP Drone Act and includes a template for directly contacting lawmakers.

“Our products are designed and intended to promote the general good and benefit society,” Regina Lin, a DJI spokeswoman, said in a statement. She denied that the drones had been involved in human-rights violations and said they were not meant for surveillance.

DJI recently opened a showroom on a prime stretch of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to display its drones, which range from $279 to at least $9,000 and are used for a wide variety of purposes, including amateur and professional photography and videography and architecture.

“Me and some of my friends use them to measure the terrain and to get the dimension of buildings,” said Paolo Dallapozza, an Italian architect who visited the store recently.

Amid rumblings that China hawks in Congress might blacklist lobbyists representing Chinese companies with military ties and their other clients, at least two firms representing DJI — the Vogel Group and Avoq — broke ties with DJI in February, according to Senate lobbying disclosures. DJI quickly hired new representatives, Senate filings show, including Liberty Government Affairs, which is run by a former senior aide to Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who has been hostile to efforts to rein in TikTok.

DJI lawyers have complained to the Pentagon about its inclusion on the roster of Chinese military companies. DJI has sought, so far unsuccessfully, to have itself removed. The lawyers noted among other points that DJI’s ownership by state-owned enterprises in China — including several banks, a state-owned insurance company and two municipal funds — accounts for less than a 6 percent stake in the company.

“DJI’s ownership is primarily concentrated in the hands of its founders and early-stage executives, none of whom are government officials or representatives of government or state-owned entities,” Loretta Lynch, the former attorney general under President Barack Obama who is now a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, wrote in a letter to the Defense Department in July.

The Pentagon, however, is unbowed.

As China “attempts to blur the lines between civil and military sectors, ‘knowing your customer’ is critical,” said Jeff Jurgensen, a Defense Department spokesman.

“U.S. companies must be vigilant against contributing to P.R.C. military programs,” he added, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Strategy discussions among DJI’s lobbyists have taken on a panicky tone in recent weeks, according to a company representative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential details. Users like Mr. Fink — a former 911 dispatcher who runs a drone shop in Fayetteville, Ark., that sells a variety of makes and models, including some by DJI — have tried to step in.

Mr. Fink said he was less focused on where the drone was built than on ensuring that consumers had a choice of quality products. “I think we just need the more competitive offerings we can have that provide a cohesive, reliable, safe, easy-to-use system,” he said.

Michael Lighthiser handles a large fleet of drones, including many produced by DJI, for George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He has met virtually with the state’s representatives, including staff members for Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, to argue against proposed curbs on the use of DJI drones. But in an acknowledgment of the political reality, Mr. Lighthiser said he also recently bought a fixed-wing vertical takeoff drone from Event 38 Unmanned Systems, a manufacturer based in Richfield, Ohio.

The Event 38 drone cost a little more than DJI’s version, Mr. Lighthiser said, but “I don’t want to buy a Chinese-made product that might be taken away in a month.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.

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