Technical Reviews

Why the U.S. government is voting to remove Chinese drones

Key Takeaways

The Countering CCP Drones Act poses a threat to DJI’s US business if signed into law.
The ban could disrupt the drone market and impact customers seeking DJI-quality alternatives.
Concerns over national security, human rights abuses, and the US-China trade war prompted the potential ban.

DJI is beloved for its lightweight, highly-capable drones — the DJI Mavic 3 Pro and DJI Air 3 reviewed well on this very site — and its camera equipment, like gimbels, action cams, and even a combination of the two, the DJI Osmo Pocket 3. The company is so popular that, in 2020, Bloomberg wrote that DJI controlled 77 percent of drone sales in the US alone. But as of June 2024, the company is one big step closer to being banned in the US entirely.

If signed into law, the ban would prevent the sale of new DJI drones in the United States, and potentially reset the competitive landscape for drones in general. But how the US government plans on making that happen, what it means to anyone who owns a DJI drone right now, and why DJI is in the crosshairs in the first place is a much more complicated story. Here’s everything you need to know about the potential DJI ban.

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How could DJI drones be banned?

The Countering CCP Drones Act

dji-mini-4-pro-49

On June 15, 2024, the US House of Representatives passed its version of the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act, funding various defense projects across the various wings of the US Armed Forces. Bundled in that larger package was the Countering CCP Drones Act, originally introduced by the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, the actual threat to DJI’s business.

The bill requires “telecommunications and video surveillance equipment or services” made by DJI Technologies (technically, Shenzhen Da-Jiang Innovations Sciences and Technologies Company Limited) to be added to an FCC list of products that pose “unacceptable risk to US national security” when they’re connected to local networks. Assuming the bill is passed, this would prevent new DJI models from being connected to US communications infrastructure and prevent businesses from using federal funds to buy them in the first place. Considering drones need to connect to the internet to stay up-to-date with the location of restricted airspace and comply with FAA regulations, this could kneecap DJI’s ability to offer drones in the US at all.

Before that happens, though, the bill has to pass in the Senate, the differences between the House’s bill and the Senate’s bill need to be reconciled, and then the President needs to sign it into law. There’s no guarantee the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes the ban on DJI drones at all. But considering how the U.S. handled Huawei, and even more recently, TikTok, the current climate suggests lawmakers won’t be too keen to side with DJI.

What does the DJI ban mean for customers?

Buying a drone is going to get weird…

DJI Mini 4 Pro and DJI Mini 3 Pro drones sitting side by side.

At the very least, if the act is signed into law, anyone currently in the market for the drone won’t be able to buy one from DJI. That could theoretically pose an opportunity for the company’s competitors to rush out their own consumer-oriented drones in the US, but they could be hard-pressed to offer something equivalent.

The main issue really, is that DJI long ago pushed out much of its competition in the consumer space. GoPro ended its short-lived entry into the drone market in 2018. Autel still sells a sort of consumer-friendly drone, but it costs nearly $700. Parrot is well-regarded, but it doesn’t even sell drones that aren’t designed for military or enterprise use-cases. Finding a trusted drone company that can readily replace DJI in terms of quality and, more importantly, price, is going to be very difficult if the ban passes simply because of how popular DJI currently is.

Whether existing drones continue working is unknown

According to a report from The New York Times, the proposed ban shouldn’t apply to existing drones. Meaning if you already purchased a drone from DJI, you should still be allowed to fly it, and it should still be allowed to connect to the internet for navigation and to receive current flight information. However, “the FCC has twice considered a rule change that would lead to the revocation of authorizations for drones currently in use,” reports The Times, so a more comprehensive ban is possible down the road. Especially if the current Countering CCP Drones Act is signed into law.

If the law was amended to be more severe or the FCC did decide to pursue a bigger ban, it’s possible the government could even fund a program to replace drones for affected business owners. For example, when former President Donald J. Trump signed a law ordering Huawei and ZTE tech to be removed and replaced by telecommunications companies, the FCC began overseeing a program to fund it (the “rip and replace” effort remains unfinished due to a lack of funding). Something similar could be cooked up for commercial drone operators.

There could be negative effects on existing businesses

Things get even more complex when you consider existing businesses that rely on drones to operate. The impact might not be felt immediately, but what happens to fire departments who use DJI drones to monitor wildfire spread? Or search and rescue teams who use drones to augment their searches. What does a wedding videographer do when they finally need to replace their drone? Finding an alternative could prove costly.

“Too many people rely on us for us to be banned” is an argument that only a company that controls the majority of a market can make, but it does pose a potential problem if lawmakers move forward with a ban. Is the bumpy transition worse than the risks of continuing to use DJI in the first place?

Why is DJI getting banned in the first place?

Spying and cybersecurity

DJI Mini 4 Pro (6) copy-1

So what risks does DJI pose? According to what one of the sponsors of the bill, Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), told The New York Times, “DJI presents an unacceptable national security risk.” In her mind, DJI’s drones are dangerous because they’ve already shared data on critical infrastructure in the US with the Chinese government.

This isn’t the first time the relative security of DJI’s drones has been called into question. In fact, since 2017, various wings of the US government and military have severed ties with DJI over the possibility that data it collects (via photos, videos, and GPS location) could be accessed by the Chinese government and used to target cyberattacks or destroy US infrastructure.

Here’s a basic timeline of the chilling relationship between US government agencies and DJI:

Aug. 2017: The US Army reportedly requests units stop using DJI drones over concerns of “cyber vulnerabilities.” Oct. 2017: DJI launches Local Data Mode that prevents internet traffic to the company’s flight app while drones are in flight. May 2019: The US Department of Homeland Security reportedly warns that Chinese drones are sending private data to servers in mainland China, compromising security. Oct. 2019: The US Department of the Interior reportedly grounded over 800 drones from Chinese manufacturers or that use Chinese-made parts, over concerns of spying. Oct. 2020: The US Department of Justice bans buying foreign-made drones with department grants over privacy risks and security concerns. July 2021: The US Department of Defense says all DJI drones “pose potential threats to national security,” regardless if previous reports suggested some were approved for use.

Complicity in human rights abuses

Adding to the heady mix of justifications, DJI has been accused of aiding or at least being complicit in the Chinese government’s persecution of the Urghyurs in Xinjiang. Bloomberg reports that DJI used to advertise that it provided drones to Xinjiang’s police bureau. Critics assume the drones were used to surveil detention camps that house ethnic and religious minorities in the region. Besides security, a secondary concern from lawmakers has been that by purchasing DJI hardware and services, it is tacitly supporting human rights abuses.

In Dec. 2020, the US Department of Commerce placed DJI on its Entity List preventing U.S. businesses from exporting tech to DJI and in the process, claimed the company “enabled wide-scale human rights abuses in China through abusive genetic collection and analysis or high-technology surveillance.” The U.S. Department of the Treasury made a similar claim when it added DJI to its list of Non-SDN Chinese Military-Industrial Complex Companies in Dec. 2021, noting that DJI was one of eight entities that “actively support the biometric surveillance and tracking of ethnic and religious minorities in China.”

The ongoing trade war with China

The US has been engaged in a trade war with China since the Trump Administration was in power and hasn’t really changed course since, which complicates some of the motivations of the potential ban. How legitimate are these concerns, or is it all just a jab at China in general? Even since the Biden Administration took over, Trump-era tariffs have remained in place, and lawmakers and regulatory agencies have continued to raise concerns or outright limit the ability for Chinese companies to do business in the US.

How has DJI responded?

DJI has continued to modify its drones and drone software in response to regulators’ concerns, even as it continues to deny wrongdoing. Local Data Mode way back in 2017 was the start, but even as recently as June 2024, the company has announced new updates. Flight records (distance, duration, flight location, and hardware flown) used to be able to be synced with DJI’s servers on an opt-in basis, but now the company has removed the ability for consumer or professional drone operators in the US to sync records at all. It likely won’t be the last change the company makes if the ban continues to make its way through Congress.

When asked to comment on the Countering CCP Drones Act passing in the House and how it planned to respond, DJI provided Pocket-lint with the following statement:

DJI has consistently worked with U.S. lawmakers to highlight the significant contributions of drone technology to the U.S. economy, correct any misinformation regarding our company’s background, and address unfounded data security concerns. We are committed to engaging with policymakers to ensure that decisions are made based on the quality and safety of our products, rather than the company’s country of origin. We stand with our diverse U.S. customer base, which includes hobbyists, agricultural professionals, public safety officials, and small business owners. Together, we oppose proposed legislation that could severely limit their access to vital drone technology — a tool that is integral to their operations and economic success.The actions taken against DJI suggest protectionism and undermine the principles of fair competition and an open market. The Countering CCP Drones Act risks setting a dangerous precedent, where unfounded allegations and xenophobic sentiments dictate public policy, potentially jeopardizing public safety and the economic well-being of the U.S. Our drones have enabled the growth of entire industries, empowering small businesses in sectors such as real estate, agriculture, and transportation. These businesses depend on the accessibility of DJI’s drone technology to thrive. We believe that innovation, security, and privacy can coexist and are essential to advancing the drone industry and the interests of all stakeholders.


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