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Trump ban on Chinese drone parts increases risk wildfires

Trump ban on Chinese-made drone parts increases risk wildfires

According to an internal memo, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision not to buy more drones with Chinese parts has made it more difficult to fight wildfires. The memo exposes one consequence of the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese tech, which includes Chinese-made drone parts.

Trump ban on Chinese-made drone parts increases risk wildfires

The memo, which was written by the department’s Office of Aviation Service, states that the department will have carried out only a quarter of the controlled burning to control and prevent wildfires that it otherwise would have done if there was no ban on drones that have Chinese-made drone parts, the Financial Times reports.

Due to the hot weather and shortage of firefighters, the U.S. is currently experiencing one of the worst years for wildfire outbreaks. The ban on the use and purchase of any drone containing Chinese-made parts increases the risk of wildfires.

The internal memo warns that “[The department’s current fleet] must expand to meet the demand of preventative measures mandated for the reduction of wildfire via vegetation reduction.”

The FT reports having seen the memo that was written earlier this year. The document concludes that by the end of 2020 the U.S. Department of the Interior will have performed only 28% of all the controlled burning it would have completed if the department would have been allowed to purchase the 17 new drone-based firefighting systems as planned.

The ban on the use of and purchase of drones containing Chinese-made parts was announced last year by David Bernhardt, the interior secretary, amid national security concerns of flying drones over federal lands.

The Department of the Interior has the largest drone fleet in the federal government. The fleet consists of more than 800 drones, including many DJI aircraft. The drones are used for monitoring wildlife and for firefighting. The fleet has been mostly grounded since Mr. Bernhardt decided that all departmental unmanned aircraft should be reviewed for the security risk they may pose as the devices contain parts that have been made in China.

The use of drones by the department was allowed for emergency situations and for carrying out controlled burning of federal lands to control and prevent wildfires. However, the FT reports that all new drone purchases can only take place with the approval of Susan Combs, one of Mr. Bernhardt’s assistant secretaries, which she has not since given.

As a result of Mr. Bernhardt’s decision, the purchase of 17 new Ignis systems to start controlled fires has not taken place. Instead, the department has either used manned aircraft to start controlled fires or has not carried out the controlled burning at all, the internal memo says.

The memo says: “Denying the acquisition of UAS [drone] aerial ignition devices directly transfers risk to firefighters who must use manned aircraft to complete these missions rather than a safer option utilizing UAS.”

The document recommends going ahead with the planned drone purchases, although that has not happened yet.

Secretary Bernhardt is committed to deploying all resources necessary to protect human health and safety. The secretary’s order grounding the department’s drones achieves these important objectives while addressing serious national security concerns that were raised in classified briefings late last year,” said the Department of the Interior.

DroneXL’s take

The Trump ban on drones that contain Chinese-made parts does not make a lot of sense when you consider that other tech products that are used by the federal government, such as smartphones, computers, printers, and cameras contain Chinese-made parts as well, but are not banned.

Furthermore, many of the drone flights performed by the Department of the Interior are over sparsely populated forest areas to monitor wildlife or fight wildfires. Hardly the sensitive areas that would provide a reason to be concerned about data security issues. Lastly, DJI worked together with the Department of the Interior to develop a ‘Government Edition‘ of certain DJI drones that would eliminate any data security concerns. I would also recommend listening to this podcast in which Brendan Schulman, Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs at DJI, talks about DJI drones and data security concerns.

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Photo: Associated Press

Haye Kesteloo

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