drone rescue (PixOne/Shutterstock.com)

DJI launches drone program for first responders

DJI, a manufacturer of popular civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, launched a disaster relief program for U.S. first responders that would give selected partners access to DJI hardware and software during and after major disasters.

The technology distributed through the program will include Matrice 200 series and Mavic 2 Enterprise series drones, accessories, batteries and visual and thermal cameras. The program will also include DJI’s FlightHub drone fleet management software and its AeroScope for airspace management and unauthorized drone detection and mitigation. In addition, DJI will provide technical support, repair services, and on-site assistance to help organizations more effectively and efficiently deploy drone technology in times of need.

Initial participants include local government agencies in California already working with DJI as development partners -- Los Angeles Fire Department, Menlo Park Fire Protection District and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Other program participants are the Public Safety Unmanned Response Team North Texas, an organization composed of drone pilots from north central fire, police and emergency management entities, FLYMOTION, a DJI Enterprise partner and UAS service provider in the public-safety sector, and Axon, which offers connected public safety and drone technologies and secure data solutions for law enforcement agencies.

“This program builds on DJI’s growing commitment to the public safety industry, as more than 900 public safety organizations across the United States, including the Los Angeles Fire Department, are deploying DJI drones for lifesaving activities,” said Romeo Durscher, director of Public Safety Integration at DJI. “To date, at least 278 people around the world have been rescued from peril by drones and this program will ensure that many more lives are saved by mitigating the risks to emergency responders on the ground and on the front lines of natural disasters.”

Even with a large installed base among U.S. government agencies, DJI is facing stiff resistance from legislators who seek to ban off-the-shelf drones and unmanned aerial systems manufactured in any country considered a national-security risk and promote a native U.S. drone manufacturing industry.

Mistrust of DJI systems seemed to begin in August 2017 when the Army banned the use of DJI drones and associated equipment due to "increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities." Army officials required all DJI applications be uninstalled, batteries and storage media removed from devices and other equipment secured until further instruction.

That same month, a memo from Customs and Immigration Enforcement's Los Angeles office to law enforcement across the nation warned that the DJI small drones were most likely downloading sensitive data gathered in the U.S., including data on critical infrastructure sites, to the Chinese government's cloud. The ICE memo also stated that the company was "dumping" the product on the U.S. market, to freeze out competition.

In a June 2019 Senate hearing on security risks (physical and cyber) from low-cost drones, a witness said geospatial information from the drones is transmitted to Chinese data centers.  Other lawmakers were concerned foreign manufacturers had a jump on those in the U.S., especially when it came to lower-end, mass-market, more affordable devices.

DJI countered with a "Government Edition" drone system whose "unique architecture ensures that drone data -- including photos and videos captured during flight -- never leave the drone and therefore can never be shared with unauthorized parties including DJI," officials said. DJI worked for two years with the Interior Department to validate the data security of the company's Matrice 600 Pro and Mavic Pro drones equipped with Government Edition firmware and software.

Now the bipartisan American Security Drone Act of 2019, introduced in the Senate Sept. 18, would ban federal agencies from buying or operating drones manufactured by countries considered a national security threat. It would also ban state and local agencies from using federal funds to buy such equipment.   

Rooting out DJI drones may be a tough slog, though, according to a new report from DroneResponse. The Sept. 24 report, "Chinese sUAS Technology in the U.S. Public Safety Sector" found that DJI is the leading brand of small UAS and flight control software operated by public safety users, with 55% of public safety operators saying their agency intends to purchase a DJI drone within the next year.

However, opinions on security vulnerabilities in Chinese drone technology vary. The report found that 44% of public safety remote pilots are not concerned about potential security vulnerabilities such as Chinese “spyware,” with 33% of operators somewhat concerned and 23% extremely concerned. Public safety operators, the report said, were not loyal to any one brand. When quality, capabilities and price are nearly identical, nearly 88% of public safety operators said they would rather purchase a drone from a company headquartered in the U.S.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at smiller@gcn.com or @sjaymiller.

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