Countering CCP Drones Act hearing weighs ban on Chinese-made drones

The summer has been one for drone pilots to keep a close eye on the news. And particularly for people use DJI or other Chinese-made drones, the news is not good. That’s because the U.S. House of Representatives in June passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA FY25). With it, comes an incredibly-controversial drone provision called the “Countering CCP Drones Act.”

Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the controversial bill. It calls out Shenzhen Da-Jiang Innovations Sciences and Technologies Company Limited (the Chinese drone maker commonly known as DJI Technologies), specifically. The bill proposes a wide-ranging ban on drones manufactured by DJI, the world’s leading drone maker based in China. Most notably is that it would prevent new DJI products from coming to market in the United States.

The legislation would do that by adding DJI to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Covered List. That means that DJI technologies would potentially be prohibited from operating on U.S. communications infrastructure. Since drones are largely reliant on FCC networks, being prohibited from being able to operate on them effectively would make these drones unusable in the U.S. The ban on new DJI drones would stem from the fact that the FCC would no longer be able to approve new equipment authorizations for DJI products in the U.S. Read the full Countering CCP Drones Act bill text here.

This has ignited a fierce debate, raising concerns about national security, economic impact, and potential technological advancements stifled.

Security concerns fuel push for a Chinese drone ban

Proponents of the bill, primarily Republicans, have argued that DJI poses a national security threat due to its ties to the Chinese government. They cite concerns about data privacy, potential espionage, and the possibility of DJI drones being used for malicious purposes.

Anti-China sentiment in the drone industry has been going on for years no. That largely kicked off in 2017 when the U.S. Army prohibited its troops from using DJI drones. The Army memo chalked it up to cyber-security concerns.  Since then, some private organizations and other government arms have suggested or implemented bans on drones made in China. At one point, the Trump administrationexplored an executive order to ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones. In late 2022, the U.S. government put DJI on a restricted trade list. Though it doesn’t ban DJI products from being sold in the U.S., it did restrict DJI from exporting US technology without a license, adding an extra layer of complication to make sales on their end. It’s also made some consumers hesitant to buy DJI drones.

The Countering CCP Drones Act was introduced in the House in April 2023.

“DJI drones pose the national security threat of TikTok, but with wings,” Stefanik said. “The possibility that DJI drones could be equipped to send live imagery of military installations, critical infrastructure, and the personal lives of American citizens to China poses too great a threat. Allowing this practice to continue in the U.S. is playing with fire. This Chinese-controlled company cannot be allowed to continue to operate in the U.S.”

How the Countering CCP Drones Act could hurt drone pilots

According to the Countering CCP Drones Act, DJI makes more than 50% of drones sold in the U.S. All sorts of people use them.

There are the recreational drone pilots who take photos with their drones — and who rely on high-quality yet affordable drones to make their hobby affordable. Small businesses that can’t afford more expensive American-made drones are reliant on DJI. Even big companies like Shell use DJI drones.

A note on Stefanik’s website even cites how DJI products comprise the most popular drones in use by public safety agencies. Because DJI drones are so easy to fly, they make for a useful tool in agencies like police departments, that otherwise are often underfunded in many cities.

Given that, the bill has faced strong opposition from the drone industry, government agencies, and individual users. Critics argue that a blanket ban on DJI products would be detrimental to the U.S. drone industry. In particular, they fear it could hinder technological advancements and innovation.

“This bill could cripple the burgeoning U.S. drone industry and force hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work, while leading to product shortages and higher prices for all,” according to a statement from the Drone Advocacy Alliance. The Drone Advocacy Alliance formed in summer 2023 as a group of drone stakeholders. Founding members included Blue Nose Aerial Imaging, Dronelink, DroneSense, the Drone Service Providers Alliance (DSPA), the Pilot Institute and the Uncrewed Trade Alliance. Though the biggest founding partner of the alliance might come as most unsurprising: DJI itself. In fact, DJI sponsors the group and maintains its website.

A boon for American-made drones?

Not every aspect of the drone industry would necessarily be hurt should the Countering CCP Drones Act pass. American drone makers would very likely thrive if people were forced to buy non-Chinese drones.

“We must ensure that the drones we use for critical operations are fully secure,” said Senator Ted Budd (R-NC). “We must invest in U.S. drone manufacturing. And we must foster a regulatory environment that promotes innovation on our shores, and it doesn’t push it overseas.”

Lawmakers have certainly proven their interest in supporting drone manufacturing. For example, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney visited Teal’s Utah factory in August 2023. That indicated a clear sign of support for the company known for making military-focused drones such as the Teal 2. Not coincidentally, Romney co-sponsored the American Security Drone Act of 2023. That bipartisan bill would prohibit federal agencies from purchasing drones made by Chinese government-linked countries. 

That might not be a huge deal for businesses seeking enterprise-grade drones anyway. But for people seeking consumer drones — particularly drones that cost less than $1,000 — there’s a very real problem. There’s not a single American-made drone under $1,000 out there that The Drone Girl recommends.

What alternatives are out there?

Sure, finding a balance between national security concerns and the economic and technological implications of a ban will be crucial. So what alternative paths could be out there besides a blanket ban? Expect to hear them presented during Thursday’s hearing.

Potential compromises could include alternative solutions such as mandatory security audits for DJI drones or increased government oversight.

But either way, the outcome of tomorrow’s Countering CCP Drones Act hearing could have significant ramifications. In particular, it could impact the future of the U.S. drone industry and its relationship with China.

How to follow the Countering CCP Drones Act

The Countering CCP Drones Act passed in the House, where Republicans have shown strong support.

“As we’ve grown increasingly connected and more reliant on technology, these networks have become a target for adversaries and bad actors,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Bob Latta (R-OH) in a joint statement. “To remain competitive and secure, the U.S. must ensure our communications and technological infrastructure is protected against adversaries, in particular the Chinese Communist Party.”

But that doesn’t mean it will pass in the Senate. The Countering CCP Drones Act generally has more Republican support. And while Republicans hold a majority in the U.S. House — where the NDAA FY25 bill overwhelmingly passed — that’s not the case in the Senate. Democrats — and independents who caucus with Democrats — hold a majority in the U.S. Senate.

The NDAA FY25 still needs to pass in the Senate, which is working on its own version of the bill. That bill is still to be voted on. From there, it goes to U.S. President Joe Biden. But for what it’s worth, the divided government means that controversial measures (like this Countering CCP Drones Act) can end up getting stripped out or heavily modified in order to pass both chambers (and to avoid a veto from Biden).

5 Comments

  • Dave says:

    Who could have predicted that Liz Stefanik would be the conduit for yet another outburst of fearmongering, xenophobic political noise? Neither she nor Gallagher have a single clear idea in their heads, on this or any other subject, aside from SOUND THE ALARM! BE AFRAID! RUN FOR COVER! And they certainly don’t have any idea how DJI is a threat to national security.

  • When they first started saying that DJI was a threat because it was made in China, I started scratching my head thinking “Wait. I’ll bet there is not one drone out there that does not have parts in it that were made in China. I know mine does and its not a DJI”

  • BT says:

    i kind of wish there were US made drones that could compete with DJI, but they really can’t. Many of the US companies are focused on military application, leaving people who just want a drone that can do mapping (photo/LiDAR/multispectral, etc) to just keep buying DJI, or spend an unholy amount of money to get there

  • Lon Denard says:

    So… it’s okay to use actual computers, routers, phones, tablets, watches, GPS, cameras, etc, etc, etc made in China but not drones? I can’t point to a single electronic device in my home that was made in the US. NOT ONE! How very stupid this all is… especially, when you consider the very real fact that DJI has been cleared of these allegations several times in the last 6 or 7 years.

  • GLC says:

    Not seeing in the Act that the ban would solely be for new DJI equipment. Wouldn’t the ban be blanket over all new and existing DJI equipment?

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