As a result, agencies are scrambling to find hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace their grounded drones with those from the state's new “approved” list.
State government officials have voiced concerns that China could access DJI drone footage or data to spy on Americans.
However, China is the home of Drone Industry leader DJI, which holds a 90-95% global market share in the small drone category, according to Christopher Todd, founder and president of Airborne Response. Todd's company trains first responders on drone usage.
Todd revealed that over 92% of Florida agencies have DJI drones in their fleet. Consequently, hundreds of public safety drones across the state have been grounded.
Florida drone ban wastes tax payers money and puts lives at risk
For example, the Broward Sheriff's Office has grounded 63 drones (purchased at a cost of $300,000), while Miami-Dade police and fire rescue have had to ground 41 drones (costing more than $200,000).
Todd's company, a Miami-based aerial intelligence services provider, operates drones on behalf of clients such as FPL, Motorola Solutions, and Citizens Insurance of Florida. As Citizens is a state-owned company, Todd admits that the new rule is “directly impacting” his ability to serve Citizens and its customers.
Todd reportedly said the ban is causing headaches for public safety agencies: “There is a lot of frustration; folks have spent a lot of time and work building out these programs with DJI technology and now they are having to restart from square one.”
He added that the ban is an unfunded mandate, meaning public safety agencies must rebuild their drone fleets without any associated funding.
A Miami-Dade police spokesperson shared that the county has allocated funds to replace grounded drones, and the agency will seek federal and state grants to expand the fleet.
As for concerns about DJI's connections to the Chinese Communist Party, Todd said the questions remain unresolved. He explained that the Chinese government has the right to request data and assets from any Chinese company, including DJI.
Additionally, Todd raised concerns about whether DJI and the Chinese government could potentially ground a portion of the US public safety fleet through software updates in the event of a geopolitical confrontation.
Todd commented on the situation: “If there is a legitimate national security concern, it makes sense to ground aircraft immediately without a sunset window, but if there is not a legitimate concern, then it makes sense to give public safety agencies time to use the equipment until the end of its serviceable life.”
One of the approved drones, manufactured by Skydio, reportedly contains numerous Chinese parts and equipment. Todd questioned whether there is a significant difference between Skydio and DJI drones.
Public safety agencies will need time to purchase and train on new equipment approved by the state. Nearly $200 million in taxpayer money has been spent on government drones across Florida. Law enforcement agencies claim that American drones are more expensive and have lower camera quality.
Officials hope to see DJI drones added back onto the approved list.
Lt. Mike Crabb with the Orange County Sheriff's Office said, “If there are some national security issues with a DJI drone, then show us what it is, and we'll be glad to purchase American.”
Action News Jax contacted various agencies in Northeast Florida to assess the impact of the Governor's new rule. The responses indicated that several agencies are transitioning their drone fleets to comply with the state law. Here are the responses they received:
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office: “Based on the recent update to Florida State Statute 934.50 regarding drone use by governmental agencies, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office will start the process of transitioning our drone fleet to comply with State law. This administration will now begin to budget for and safely implement new technology. As always, community and officer safety and careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars are of paramount concern as this agency complies with this new law.”
Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department: “JFRD has shelved their DJI drones since Jan 1 and are waiting on this legislative session to end to see how to proceed.”
Clay County Fire Rescue: “This does not affect Clay County Fire Rescue. This department does not own a drone.”
Putnam County Sheriff's Office: “The Florida Sheriff's Association is working on a collaboration with the department of management services to build regulatory framework that we are awaiting. This will allow us to continue operating our drones and ensuring compliance by not having the drones connected to a server. Our drones operated independently of a server and record directly onto a memory card.
We have a dedicated laptop for the drone that has not connectivity to any servers or other programs like our computer assisted dispatch (CAD). If a work around was not in progress, this would have been extremely cost prohibitive initiative for us as we have about $150,000 invested in drones and hardware. Currently there are no approved drones with the lifting capability of cameras and other equipment we utilize for long missions such as the one we had last night at the Rodman dam.”
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