A relatively new Florida drone law is creating headaches for public safety agencies using drones — including government agencies. At least that’s according to the results of research freshly released by the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), which is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization designed to support the use of drones for public safety and disaster response.
The law at hand is Florida Senate Bill 44, which was first filed in 2020 and requires that the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) create an publish a list of approved drone manufacturers (those manufacturers have to meet specific security standards). The law, which was introduced by Florida Republican Senator Tom A. Wright, was approved by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in June 2021. The list itself — dubbed the “Approved Drone Manufacturers” list — was released on December 31, 2021.
And as of January 1, 2022, section 934.50 of the Florida Statutes states that Florida governmental agencies may only purchase or otherwise acquire drones from a manufacturer on the approved list.
The thing is, there are currently only five approved drone manufacturers on the list. They are:
- Teal Drones
- Vantage Robotics
Of course, many well-regarded drone companies are absent from the list. But there’s one drone giant in particular that’s notably absent: DJI.
Florida drone law bans government agencies from using DJI drones
According to AIRT’s research, 92% of Florida government drone programs are currently operating DJI drones as part of their fleet. That means there are a lot of agencies relying on drones that are no longer approved. In turn, they’re needing to scramble to research and learn about new drones, get their staffed trained on them, and find funding to pay for all-new drones.
The new Florida drone law is “causing great concern among Florida public safety agencies who had invested heavily in small, unmanned aircraft systems manufactured by DJI – a Chinese company that is the undisputed global leader in the sUAS market, but is perceived as a security threat by federal government agencies – particularly the Department of Defense,” according to a statement released by AIRT.
Over the past few years, DJI has been subject to heavy criticism over its security measures and has received intense scrutiny particularly given the fact that it’s based in China. In 2021 an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump ordered government agencies to study whether they could stop buying certain drones (with Chinese-made drones being the center of that decree). And the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 prohibited defense contracts that would involve operation or procurement of foreign-made drones. At one point, the U.S. government added DJI to its restricted trade list. And all the way back in 2017, the U.S. Army prohibited its troops from using DJI drones due to cyber-security concerns.
But the reality is, most drone operators use DJI drones. In 2021, DJI had a market share of 54% when it came to its enterprise drone products. Its market share is even higher when you factor in consumer-focused camera and selfie drones. (When it comes to consumer friendly drones designed for newbies like the Mini 2 or the Mavic Air 2, DJI has a whopping 94% market share, according to DroneAnalyst 2021 Drone Market Sector Report.)
For many, DJI products are seen as the most reliable, easy-to-use drones. And, they’re often among the lowest-priced. For agencies that rely on tax-payer funding, price is not only critical for those agencies, but also critical for the general public given it’s their money paying for them.
There is a stipulation in Florida’s laws to account for the fact that agencies might have existing drones that they need to transition out. Governmental agencies may continue to used drones not on the department’s approved list until January 1, 2023, according to the law. Yet there’s even more paperwork involved. For governmental agencies using drones not on the department’s approved list, they must also submit “a comprehensive plan for discontinuing their use to the department” as of July 1, 2022.
But Florida public safety agencies say the paperwork is too much, while the 2023 deadline to end the use of non-approved drones completely is not enough.
Government agencies aren’t happy with the government’s new drone rule
During the first two weeks of April, AIRT (through the DRONERESPONDERS Florida Public Safety Coordination Group) surveyed 60 government entities that operate drones. The survey found that 95% of respondents (that’s 58 out of 60) said they believe the new law will have a negative impact on their organization’s drone program. What’s more 87% of those respondents said they felt the law would have an “extremely negative impact.”
And it’s not just DJI that’s the odd one out. Autel, which is also a Chinese-made drone manufacturer, is also notably absent on the list, though it is used by 22% of Florida government agencies, according to AIRT.
“This has quickly become one of the most controversial issues impacting the public safety drone sector to date,” Christopher Todd, Executive Director of AIRT said in a prepared statement.
There could be a potential solution at hand: a waiver process that might allow agencies to use drones outside those on Florida’s approved list.
More than 93% of Florida agencies operating drones said in AIRT’s survey that they would support the ability to request a waiver from the Florida DMS to use drones not listed on the Approved Drone Manufacturers List. The remaining 7% of agencies were unsure about their approach to the Florida drone law and said they needed more information on the topic.
While that would add an extra layer of paperwork, agencies say it’s worth it. After all, they’re invested heavily in accessories like extra batteries, protective cases, additional payload sensors, and specialized fleet management, live streaming, and other software platforms.
“Stakeholders everywhere are arguing whether this action is warranted from a security perspective,” Todd said. “Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, the issue ultimately boils down to two key aspects: capabilities and funding.”