The Trump administration is set to ground one of its biggest civilian drone programmes permanently because the devices have been made at least partly in China, in the latest sign of concern in Washington about US exposure to Chinese technology.
The Department of the Interior is planning to halt the use of its nearly 1,000 drones, according to two people briefed on the plans, after concluding there was too high a risk that they could be used by Beijing for spying.
The decision is being made despite widespread concerns among department staff that taking the fleet out of action will cost the government significant time and money. Documents seen by the Financial Times reveal that staff at various agencies have protested against the proposals.
David Bernhardt, secretary of the interior, has not yet signed off on a final policy, but people briefed on his thinking say he is planning to pull the fleet from action, with exceptions made for emergencies such as fighting wildfires and possibly for training.
Chinese-made civilian drones have recently become a major area of security concern for the US government, with officials warning that the images captured on their cameras could be accessed by Beijing.
The US army has already issued a directive banning drones made by the Chinese company DJI, which sells more than 70 per cent of the world’s civilian drones, while Congress is debating a bill that would ban the federal government from buying any more Chinese drones.
The US government has been looking at ways to encourage the development of a purely American made-drone, but this is likely to take years, officials say. Several western companies have already admitted defeat in their attempts to take on DJI in the consumer market, confounded in part by the costs of manufacturing.
The interior department uses drones to tackle wildfires, to map terrain and to monitor natural resources. It announced last October it would temporarily ground 810 camera drones while Mr Bernhardt reviewed their security risks.
A department spokesperson said the review is ongoing and drones manufactured in China or containing Chinese components remain grounded except for emergency use.
A spokesperson for DJI, which made 121 of the department’s drones, said: “While we have not seen the new policy, we look forward to reviewing the findings of DOI’S comprehensive review of its drone programme, given the lack of credible evidence to support a broad country-of-origin restriction on drone technology.”
Dozens of members of staff at several agencies have protested against the plan to ground them permanently, according to documents seen by the FT.
A note compiled by the Fish and Wildlife Service outlined the ways in which its operations had already been affected by the temporary ban. The service said it had cancelled flights to monitor controlled burns aimed at reducing wildfires and to help count animals in certain areas.
A separate document prepared by the Geological Survey for the department lists eight different ways its staff have used drones, including for flood response, monitoring agricultural sites and preparing for earthquakes.
One staff member warned: “Unmanned aircraft systems are a unique tool that fit into this mission and allow us to make high-quality surface observations at a fraction of the price of manned aircraft operations.”
Gary Baumgartner, who retired from the Bureau of Land Management last June, told the FT such concerns were widespread among staff who, like him, had relied on the drones for their work. “Without drones, we often have to fly manned aircraft, which is much more expensive — and frequently dangerous for those involved.”