A new Arkansas law, Act 525 of 2023, prohibits law enforcement agencies from purchasing small drones from “covered foreign entities,” such as DJI drones, starting in 2027.
According to Act 525 of 2023, a “covered foreign entity” is defined as an “individual, foreign government or a party other than an individual or foreign government on the Consolidated Screening List or entity list as designated by the United States Secretary of Commerce; Domiciled in the People's Republic of China or the Russian Federation; under the influence or control by the government of the People's Republic of China or the Russian Federation.”
Phase out Foreign and DJI drones
Police departments in Arkansas have four years to phase out their use of foreign drones. However, if they believe their drones can last beyond four years, they can apply for a waiver through the Secretary of Transportation.
Chris Fink, CEO of Unmanned Vehicle Technologies LLC, which provides drones to government agencies, says waivers are essential for departments that cannot afford non-Chinese equipment. DJI, a Chinese company, is the world's largest drone manufacturer, accounting for 70% of the global civilian market.
“If a law enforcement agency in the state simply cannot afford to purchase non-Chinese equipment, they absolutely need the ability to get a waiver,” he said. “The alternative is they have to go without drones, which puts officers and citizens at greater risk.”
The new legislation primarily targets DJI due to concerns over data security and links to the Chinese Communist Party.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has placed DJI on its Entity List, barring American companies from supplying DJI with drone parts or components. Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior, have imposed restrictions on using DJI drones due to cybersecurity concerns.
At least 18 states — Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin — and the District of Columbia enacted 25 bills in 2021 addressing drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Arkansas and Texas have also prohibited drones from flying over certain facilities, such as airports and correctional institutions.
American drone companies like 3D Robotics and GoPro have failed to compete with DJI, which remains a more affordable option for consumers.
A DJI spokesperson stated that many U.S. Government agencies still rely on their drones, and their cybersecurity and privacy practices have been independently verified. They reportedly argue that limiting access to their technology based on the country of origin could cost lives.
The DJI spokesperson said that “Any position or concern solely based on country of origin limits competition, innovation and the availability of technology. UAS like DJI's allow workers to safely engage in public safety scenarios, inspect elevated infrastructure, such as transmission lines and wind turbines from the ground, etc., and they have been used to rescue hundreds of people from peril around the world. A rash, uninformed decision that limits access to our technology because of concerns about country of origin will literally cost people their lives.”
Fink highlights the importance of funding mechanisms to help state agencies procure new, non-Chinese equipment.
The Little Rock Police Department's SWAT team currently operates four DJI drones and two additional units from Skydio, an American drone manufacturer. According to Mark Edwards, the department's public information officer, they plan to maximize the use of their existing drones before seeking replacements.
Meanwhile, the North Little Rock Police Department boasts eight licensed drone pilots, with five of them actively serving on the team. Each pilot is equipped with two drones in their patrol vehicles: the Autel Robotics Evo II Enterprise Dual and a more compact Autel Robotics Nano. For specialized missions, the SWAT team relies on a larger Brinc Lemar drone.
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