Ukraine Russian war

DJI halts business in both Ukraine and Russia

Add DJI to the list of companies opting to pause business in Russia in light of the war. The Chinese-based drone maker announced this week that it would put a temporary hold on business activities in not just Russia, but Ukraine too.

DJI released a brief statement on the matter this week:

DJI is internally reassessing compliance requirements in various jurisdictions. Pending the current review, DJI will temporarily suspend all business activities in Russia and Ukraine. We are engaging with customers, partners and other stakeholders regarding the temporary suspension of business operations in the affected territories.

-Statement from DJI, issued on April 26, 2022

While it’s not exactly rare for companies to be pausing operations in Russia as of late (other notable companies that have announced they would pause or entirely cease operations include Alphabet, Apple, Disney, Netflix and Starbucks, among hundreds of others), it is relatively rare for a Chinese company to take such a stand. Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi briefly paused Russian operations, before resuming them.

But DJI is in a particularly interesting position given the inevitable connection that drones have with war.

Just last month, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov wrote an open letter shared on Twitter to DJI founder and CEO Frank Wang, claiming that Russian troops were using DJI products in order to navigate missile attacks. That letter asked the company to stop doing business in Russia.

For its part, DJI is looking to separate itself from the military connotations of drones. DJI previously issued a separate statement (which continues to evolve) making clear that DJI opposes military use of its products.

We want to reiterate a position we have long held: our products are made to improve people’s lives and benefit the world, and we absolutely deplore any use of our products to cause harm. DJI has only ever made products for civilian use; they are not designed for military applications. Specifically:

  • DJI does not market or sell our products for military use.
  • DJI does not provide after-sales services for products that have been identified as being used for military purposes.
  • DJI has unequivocally opposed attempts to attach weapons to our products.
  • DJI has refused to customize or enable modifications that would enable our products for military use.

DJI also said that it would terminate relationships with any distributors, resellers or business partners who sell DJI products to customers who clearly plan to use them for military purposes, or help modify our products for military use.

“DJI is dedicated to creating products that benefit society,” according to a prepared statement from DJI. “We will never accept any use of our products to cause harm, and we will continue striving to improve the world with our work.”

Ukraine aerial view
An aerial view taken on April 8, 2022 shows diggers working in the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Borodianka, northwest of Kyiv. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

That said, many militaries — including the U.S. military (at least in the past) use or used DJI drones.

The U.S. Army in 2017 discontinued use of DJI drones due to “cyber vulnerabilities.” But shortly after, DJI launched a new stealth mode designed to provide enhanced data privacy assurances for sensitive government and enterprise customers. While not clearly targeted at military applications (and for what it’s worth, DJI said that local data mode had been in development for months before the Army ban), the new mode seemed designed to placate concerns from the military that DJI’s drones weren’t secure enough.

In standard flight modes, DJI requires internet usage to connect to local maps, geofencing data, app updates, radio frequency and power requirements. With the stealth mode, pilots could prevent their DJI drones from sending or receiving any data over the internet, which DJI says gives customers “enhanced assurances about the privacy of data generated during their flights.”

“We are creating local data mode to address the needs of our enterprise customers, including public and private organizations that are using DJI technology to perform sensitive operations around the world,” then-DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman (who has since left the company) said in a prepared statement back in 2017. “Local data mode will provide added assurances for customers with heightened data security needs.”

Photo courtesy of Draganfly.

How are other drone companies responding to the conflict in Ukraine?

Meanwhile, as DJI distances itself from the conflict in Ukraine, other drone companies are using it as an opportunity to step in. For example, Canada-based Draganfly this week said that at least one of the drones it shipped to Ukraine charity, Revived Soldiers Ukraine (RSU), has arrived in Europe.

Those drones, which are Draganfly Medical Response drones equipped with temperature-managed payload boxes, will deliver insulin to hard-to-reach hospitals in Ukraine (insulin is temperature-sensitive). Draganfly said it ordered 200 drones, which are able to transport up to 35 pounds of blood, pharmaceuticals, insulin/medicines, vaccines, and wound care kits.

Since the Russian invasions that started in late February, hospitals have struggled to get sufficient equipment and supplies.

Separately, Ukraine’s government wants military-grade drones. Ukrainian officials have asked the United States for “strike drones” with “appropriate munitions” like the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, according to Politico. Politico reported that the Pentagon has already sent Ukraine multiple small, expendable Switchblade drones and the new Phoenix Ghost.

But even less sophisticated drones are being used for fighting. An elite Ukrainian drone unit called Aerorozvidka, which was founded by volunteers who have backgrounds in tech, engineering and IT, custom-builds and modifies off-the-shelf consumer drones to work in a military context, allegedly dropping bombs on Russian vehicles, according to Business Insider.

That group has said that they frequently use store-bought drones that they modify and militarize, including drones from Chinese drone maker Autel, French company Parrot and, yes, DJI.

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