Chinese drone maker tries to quell talk of data siphoning

DJI's U.S. operation tells lawmakers its technology is secure and is approved for use by state, local and federal agencies.

drone signals (Thongsuk Atiwannakul/

After a bruising Senate hearing over drone security issues last week, Chinese drone maker DJI told U.S. lawmakers that some claims made by witnesses were "inaccurate" and "unsubstantiated."

The company sent a letter on June 24 to the leadership of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee in the aftermath of a hearing on potential security risks arising from China's increasing dominance in low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles.

"We are deeply concerned that, left unchecked, the unsubstantiated speculation and inaccurate information … will put the entire U.S. drone industry at risk, causing a ripple effect that will stunt economic growth and handcuff public servants who use DJI drones to protect the public and save lives," said Mario Rebello, vice president and regional manager, of DJI Technology North America.

During the hearing, Harry Wingo of National Defense University was particularly critical of DJI. He said the company has a "near monopoly" on drone technology marketed in the U.S. That technology isn't just in the gears and rotors, but also in the image collection and storage systems that take photographs and retain data. He said American geospatial information is transmitted to Chinese data centers at an unprecedented level. "DJI says that American data is safe, but its use of proprietary software networks means how would we know."

In his letter, Rebello called that speculation "simply wrong." He said DJI drones "do not share flight logs, photos or videos unless the drone pilot deliberately chooses to do so."

To drive the point home, along with the letter, DJI said it has a "Government Edition" drone system with hardware and software controls that create a "data firewall for the photos, videos and flight logs created by a drone." It said the package has been used by the Department of the Interior's Office of Aviation Services. It cited the agency's 2018 UAS program use report, saying the office used the technology in 1,500 of 10,000 drone flights in 2018, which were audited "by DOI's external and internal partners."

In his letter to the subcommittee, Rebello said DJI aircraft don't automatically send flight data to China "or anywhere else." He added that the aircraft don't automatically send photos or video over the internet. That data, he said, stays onboard the aircraft or the pilot's mobile device. "DJI cannot share customer data it never receives," he said.

Lawmakers on the Senate panel were concerned Chinese and other foreign manufacturers had a jump on U.S. makers on the lower-end, mass-market, more affordable drone market.

"I think the simple answer to the question is that American-made drones tend to be a little bit more upmarket and they tend to be more use-specific," Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said.

U.S. drone makers, he said, have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to create more flexible rules for extended drone operations. Those restrictions have slowed some research and development of the technology in the U.S., according to some experts.

Catherine Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, noted in her testimony to the panel that some FAA regulations were cramping drone technology testing. For instance, she said that only a few federal agencies could test anti-drone technology and that research on longer range, beyond-line-of-sight testing has to be done in Canada because of FAA restrictions.

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