Should you buy a new drone from DJI, now that the company has been added by the U.S. to a China blacklist?
The U.S. government in December 2020 added Chinese drone manufacturer DJI to a list of companies on its restricted trade list, alongside other big Chinese companies such as China’s top chipmaker, SMIC.
It’s not entirely clear why exactly DJI was added to the list, but some suggest that it was DJI’s reported work for the Chinese government, while others have suggested DJI is involved in potential human rights violations. Throw in the fact that the U.S. government has long been worried about federal agencies using drones by foreign drone makers; a 2017 U.S. Army notice prohibiting its troops from using DJI drones because of cyber-security concerns; and a proposed executive order that would ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones; and you have a lot of people dubious of DJI.
Of course, the challenge is that DJI is undeniably the biggest drone maker in the world. And depending on who you ask, it’s generally seen as the best. DJI’s drones are popular among a wide swath of people, whether its people new to drones looking for a low-cost aerial camera, small business owners or major law enforcement agencies.
It’s for those reasons that many are wondering what to do about their collection of DJI drones, and whether they should buy more. A lot of people have (and frequently use) DJI drones and don’t want to completely change their gear kit to a different company. And a lot of people getting into drones for the first time still are considering buying a DJI drone, wondering if pros like relatively low cost and ease of use still outweigh the con: being associated with the China blacklist.
Here’s what you need to know about buying a DJI drone in 2021:
The China blacklist is not a ban on DJI products
Contrary to what some may have you believe, DJI’s products have not been completely banned from sale in the U.S.
“Instead, the list and related sanctions are made to limit ‘exports, re-exports and transfers’ to these companies, not the purchase of a listed companies’ products,” according to a post from drone industry analyst (and former DJI employee) David Benowitz, who is primarily known for his annual Drone Market Sector report. “This will limit DJI’s abilities to procure US-made technology and components that its products rely on. “
Instead, it means that DJI might have trouble procuring parts made from U.S. suppliers, like the FLIR thermal cameras used in drones such as the DJI XT2, or vision chips made by companies such as Intel and Ambarella.
What DJI’s spot on the blacklist means for you:
DJI says you don’t need to worry about changes on your end as a consumer.
“DJI is disappointed in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s decision”, a representative of the company said in an emailed statement. “Customers in America can continue to buy and use DJI products normally.”
We suggest though that things might change a little bit, and you shouldn’t assume you can buy products 100% normally. Here’s why:
DJI products may go out of stock (and might take a while to be restocked): If DJI cannot procure parts from American suppliers, it may turn to new suppliers. That means, in the period between suppliers, you might see certain DJI products delayed for shipping as the current stock runs out and DJI takes time to replace it. It might also mean that some items go out of stock for good, should DJI not find an adequate alternate supplier.
If there are specific items you need, we suggest buying them now. If you’re constantly replacing batteries, we recommend buying a few extra than usual, in case the ability to replace your Phantom 4 Series Intelligent Flight Battery goes away. Or if you were considering picking up a Zenmuse XT2, to pair specifically with the FLIR Tau 2 thermal sensor, do it now, as future sensors might not necessarily come from FLIR.
DJI products may get more expensive: With changes in supplier inevitably comes changes in cost, not just in terms of cost of products themselves, but may entail tariffs that may come from DJI purchasing parts from different countries.
One reason not to buy a DJI drone since the China blacklist
With the high level of anti-Chinese sentiment, particularly around DJI, this may be the biggest reason not to buy a DJI drone: your clients may not want you to.
The U.S. Army won’t use DJI drones, and other federal agencies have followed suit. That’s also being extended into other private industries. If you’re a small business owner using drones to provide, say, mapping services for an oil company, that oil company might specifically say you cannot use a DJI drone. If that’s you, consider buying a drone made in America, such as the Skydio 2.
As far as why buying DJI does make sense…
As far as small photography business owners, or people simply using drones for fun, DJI drones still are generally the best drones for photography. And it doesn’t stop there. The company’s products are generally seen as the best drones for agriculture, among many other commercial use cases.
Oh, and there’s one more reason to buy one DJI drone in particular: the Mini 2. The FAA in the end of 2020 announced a new Remote ID rule that requires that drones weighing 250 grams or more will have to be capable of being remotely identified in order to fly. The DJI Mavic Mini, weighs 249 grams exactly — and that’s not a coincidence. Besides fitting under the threshold for Remote ID, that’s 1 gram short of the Federal Aviation Administration’s threshold for whether recreational pilots need to register your drone with the government.
Many people are opposed to the Remote ID rule, stating that they don’t want the government tracking their drone flights. Since there aren’t any worthy alternatives made by DJI competitors for drones that weigh less than 250 grams, the Mini 2 may suddenly get ultra popular as the Remote ID rules go into effect in 18 months — causing additional demand that may already be in short supply due to the China blacklist.