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DJI's Brendan Schulman talks about drones, DJI, China, data security in this must-listen podcast

DJI’s Brendan Schulman talks about drones, DJI, China, data security in this must-listen podcast

In this podcast, Brendan Schulman, Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs at DJI, talks about drones, the history of DJI, China, data security, regulatory challenges, and a host of other issues. If you are active in the drone industry or are a drone enthusiast this is a must-listen podcast. The entire episode is a little less than an hour so make sure you reserve some time. If you don’t have time to listen, you can read some of the highlights below.

Update: apparently there also was a video version of this conversation. This one is even more informative. Check it out below.

DJI’s Brendan Schulman talks about drones and a whole range of other issues

In the Sinica Podcast produced in partnership with SUPChina, Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy, interview DJI’s Brendan Schulman about a host of issues that are currently happening in the drone industry. The entire show lasts a little less than one hour and it is definitely worth listening to. Here are some of the highlights from the podcast.

About any relationships between DJI and Chinese law enforcement, Chinese military or any other Chinese governmental agencies, Brendan Schulman says:

We’re a consumer electronics company, so you know, our products are available off the shelf. So the kinds of agencies you’ve mentioned could, and probably do, purchase those products from any number of sales channels. But in my five years at the company, I haven’t seen any signs of influence or sort of unwarranted connections between what we do in terms of the products we make. The functionality they have. The policy outcomes that we advocate for. I’ve spent five years advocating for reasonable risk-based regulation for drones of all kinds, including our own. And all of that has been in furtherance of our mission as the leading company in the industry of enabling the customers to do great things.

Brendan Schulman says that the fact that DJI is based in Shenzhen, China offers the drone designers an advantage.

To see them come up with an idea and then literally like run out, get the components they need, put it together, test it. Sometimes like right in the lot, right across the street. And then run back up, make some adjustments, go back, and do it all over again. So the cycle of innovation is just faster because you can order up the components you want to test, test them and then go back, and do your next development cycle within hours, or at least days. And I think that’s really… DJI’s unique. It’s the whole end-to-end, right. The design of the drone, especially the ones that Frank has worked on directly over the years, all the way down to refining it. Making it better. Deciding what kind of plastic to use. Things that would seem very basic, can be decided in near real-time. And to have one product line, like a drone, where you’re doing that end-to-end development production, manufacturing, and shipment within one company, I think, is surely an advantage. I’m not a supply chain specialist, but I can see just from my visits there, how quickly they’re able to innovate the next generation of features.

About the infamous ICE memo, Brendan says:

One of the moments, which a lot of things crystallized, was an apparent memo written by someone in the Los Angeles office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This was not, from our understanding. This was not sent through Washington. It was not actually released or approved or official. It was a draft and yet it leaked. And it made a number of allegations, specifically about our technology that just from a first reading were absolutely preposterous. Things like the drone actually is still operating when the battery power is turned off. It’s connected to satellite receivers. It’s doing facial recognition. Things like our sales efforts have focused on infrastructure organizations. I know that is not true, because I see how we do sales and if anything, we’ve neglected, and have been slow to try to roll out products to key markets like that, that I think would benefit from drones. So you read this document that’s anonymous essentially and sourced to an unnamed industry source, who might even be a competitor for all we know, because they’re not named. And it’s absurd. Now that said, how do you prove a negative, right? What do you do when you have the letterhead of an agency, even though it’s not released, on a document that says such absurd things. And we did what we could. Obviously we immediately said this is wrong. It’s untrue, but that wasn’t enough. We commissioned a consulting firm called Kivu to actually examine the technology and give us their analysis on these allegations. And they walk through the report and said these things are false. They’re not true. So we had the independent evaluation, this is now a couple of years ago, but a lot of things have built on that and it’s depressing that every time I go to a meeting, even as far away as like the UK House of Commons, where I was asked to testify about safety features, that they make reference to this ridiculous memo as if it’s true. As if it’s the product of government research and thought and science, which it is not, and which we disproved. And yet it lives on as a mythical thing.

About data security concerns, Brendan Schulman says:

This is not surprising, that a product developed for consumer use and then adopted for commercial and governmental use, would raise data security questions, particularly when used by agencies that are understandably sensitive about using foreign technologies.

During the podcast, the conversation goes much deeper into the data security issue and the currently proposed bills in the US. Brendan raises two questions.

  1. Why just drones, and not smartphones, or other consumer electronics?
  2. Why stop at China? It is not about China versus non-China. You would have to define cybersecurity standards

About the Government Edition that DJI had developed over a 15-month period in partnership with the Department of the Interior and that was later validated by NASA and the Idaho National Laboratory working for DHS and others, Brendan says that the drone program was suddenly shut down, even though the drones were not used for sensitive missions. They were used for fire prevention and fighting missions and to count fish, among other things. The drone program of the DoI was one of the best government drone programs receiving international praise from drone communities.

Brendan Schulman continues to say that the DoI:

They had a secure product that they validated and yet they were shut down. So I can’t think of a better example of proving that this is not about security. Because the security issues were satisfied the mission is not sensitive and yet the program has been shut down. And by the way, the Department of the Interior has by far the best government drone, civilian drone program out there in the world. They were winning awards and getting widespread praise across the American and international drone communities for putting drones to amazing beneficial uses protecting the lives of firefighters, protecting property on the ground, and you name it. And training other agencies, including state and local agencies, to do the same. So we have we’ve lost at least for now really one of the gems. Of the federal government’s civilian drone program and I don’t think there’s a good reason for that.

About the use of drones to fight the coronavirus and using drones to spray disinfectants in public spaces, Brendan said:

We worked with an agriculture university in China to do that in a thousand counties across China and determined that it [spraying disinfectants with drones] was 50 times faster than doing it by hand.

About the draft Executive Order from the Trump Administration, Brendan Schulman says:

Well, what we’ve seen is a draft Executive Order that was reported on by Politico. I can’t speak for the administration in terms of why they would want to do that, but I do think it’s an example of the many different types of policies that we’ve seen proposed relating to Chinese drones. Now the draft EO does a few other things that go beyond the legislative proposals.

Number one, federal agencies would not be permitted to purchase or use drones that are covered. And the ones that are covered are not just ones that are made by a Chinese company or that were made in China, but, in fact, drones that contain a variety of components that are made in China. And when you look at that list and you understand the drone industry, you would realize that I don’t think there is a drone product on the market, and certainly not any good ones, that don’t contain at least one component made in China that would fall into those categories. So, number one, it basically shuts down all the use of drones by federal agencies because of how broad the scope is on which products are covered.

Number two, grant recipients or others that are under contract with the federal government or subject to cooperative agreements, would also be restricted from purchasing Chinese drone products.

And then number three, and this again is another step forward that is troubling, is there’s a provision that would prohibit anyone from operating such a drone over federally managed lands, including lands in which the US government has a leasehold interest. So we’re starting to see is that you know, as you’re flying the drone that you love, out there. If you happen to be flying over something owned or managed or leased by the federal government, you’re in violation. And again, it doesn’t matter how sensitive that location is or not. Doesn’t matter who you are, who you aren’t. The executive order is drafted would say you can’t do that. And to me that actually has a broader implication. That means that, that whatever these purported security issues are, are starting to intrude into what the industry would tell you, I think, is a right to fly, right? We all have a right of transit in the airspace. Drones are aircraft. Under federal law, you’ve got a right to go out there and fly your airplane or your drone and you know, assuming you comply with safety regulations, of course. So what that proposal seems to suggest is that even the right to fly of an ordinary citizen might be in jeopardy because of these policies and the motivations behind them.

What do you think about this podcast with Brendan Schulman? Let us know in the comments below.

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