U.S. Authorities are deploying Chinese-Made drones in vast numbers, igniting Senator Marco Rubio's ire.

According to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documentation, state governments and local police departments across the east coast of the U.S. are acquiring and operating thousands of drones made by Chinese manufacturers DJI and Autel. This widespread use of Chinese drones has drawn sharp criticism from Senator Marco Rubio, who sees “no excuse” for it.

The Florida Senator conveyed to Forbes, “Given everything we know about the Chinese Communist Party there is simply no excuse for using these drones, especially in our nation's capital.”

Amid 's concerns about 's potential conversion of drones into instruments for remote aerial surveillance, it seems American law enforcement and states are increasingly relying on drones made in Beijing.

READ: BLUE SUAS PROBLEMS AND FLORIDA DMS SECRETARY ACCUSED OF PIMPING FOR SKYDIO

Data from FOIA responses and other sources suggest a massive influx of Autel and DJI drones, the latter valued at $16 billion and recognized as the world's leading drone manufacturer.

Interestingly, the U.S. Capitol Police are among those employing drones from China's Autel Robotics. These four models, the department's only drones, were procured last year at $2,000 apiece. Although not yet deployed in Washington D.C., they have been used for training without being connected to the department's network. This information surfaced through FOIA requests filed by Jerome Greco, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

DJI and Autel dominate East coast local government market share

DJI and Autel hold 70% of the local government market share in areas such as Florida, , , and Washington D.C. This trend could see a setback if more states follow Florida's lead in banning Chinese-made drones over intelligence concerns, or if Congress passes proposed legislation targeting foreign espionage risks.

Chinese tech giants such as ByteDance, Huawei, and ZTE have already experienced restrictions from the U.S. due to fears of data collection and potential spying.

Despite a lack of specific evidence, lawmakers and defense officials maintain concerns about the possibility of Beijing pressuring manufacturers like Autel and DJI to relay visual and data to the Chinese government. As a consequence, the Commerce Department blacklisted DJI in 2020, and the Pentagon deemed DJI technologies as potential national security threats in 2021.

Senators Mark Warner and Rick Scott have recently proposed the American Security Drone Act of 2023. Backed by Senators Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, this bill would restrict federal agencies from purchasing drones from countries seen as national security threats, including China. It would also prohibit using federal grants to law enforcement for buying Chinese drones.

Senator Rubio, alarmed by the extensive use of these drones, particularly in the nation's capital, urged Congress to act, as these drones could potentially aid China's spying efforts.

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Concerns are baseless according to DJI

Meanwhile, DJI and Autel representatives emphasized the security and reliability of their products. Carol Kaplan, DJI's director of policy and communications, suggested that efforts to limit governmental use of their drones were baseless.

“Current efforts to restrict the use of our drones by governmental agencies are based on nothing more than conjecture and supposition, and accomplish nothing but handicapping first responders who deserve the best equipment available to them regardless of country of origin,” Kaplan said according to Forbes. “Anything less is a disservice to the men and women who put their lives on the line for us all each and every day.”

Autel spokesperson Coco Lee refrained from commenting on intelligence concerns but pointed out that their drone camera feeds were broadcast on encrypted frequencies, and flight data was stored internally.

FOIA data shows DJI and Autel hold a considerable market share in government drone registrations in New Jersey, Florida, and New York. Federal contract records also indicate that the U.S. Navy and Air Force purchased DJI drones within the past year.

DJI's prevalence among American law enforcement is due to its early market entry, affordability, and reliability. Autel, however, has a few advantages, particularly in Washington D.C., as their drones do not have geofence restrictions.

Autel drones not made in USA

Despite attempts to present its Evo II aircraft as “Made in USA,” the company acknowledged that its drones are not entirely American-made. The ongoing scrutiny and proposed legislation have already negatively affected Autel's sales, but the company hopes to join the Pentagon's Blue sUAS program, potentially improving its reputation and market share.

Toying with the powerhouse DJI is Autel, another Chinese manufacturer making headway in the local U.S drone market.

The relatively lesser-known brand is increasingly being noticed, thanks to the data secured via FOIA requests by Greco. The documents reveal that New Jersey's law enforcement and government agencies have registered over 550 drones, with DJI and Autel commanding the lion's share at 440 and 65 respectively.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the total count of government-registered drones surpassed 3,000, with DJI leading at over 1,500 and Autel with nearly 300.

In New York, the scenario was no different – DJI and Autel outperformed all competitors, accounting for 461 and 29 of the total 530 drones respectively. These two brands alone represent 68% of all drone registrations in the three states combined.

Intriguingly, even regions near Washington D.C, are not immune to the allure of these Chinese drones. A survey of several local agencies revealed that the State Police exclusively utilize a fleet of 28 DJI and Autel drones. Similarly, Fredericksburg police department, located less than 50 miles south of D.C., previously operated Autel drones, although it now only uses DJIs.

Chinese Drones: High Performance, Higher Concerns

Blue sUAS too expensive compare to Chinese-made drones

DJI's popularity among American law enforcement agencies can be largely attributed to its early market entry, reasonable pricing, and reliable products, according to Tim Martin, an ex-Huntington Beach police officer and current drone trainer.

Despite attempts to popularize American and European brands like California's and France's , these options remain cost-prohibitive for many police departments.

Martin highlighted the price discrepancy, stating, “You can get two DJI drones for the price of those other ones.” It's unsurprising, then, that 95% of the drones police want to learn to operate are DJIs.

READ: BLUE SUAS PURCHASED BY PENTAGON ‘8 TO 14 TIMES' MORE EXPENSIVE THAN DJI DRONES

Autel, while not as widely recognized as DJI, holds a unique advantage in the Washington D.C. area. Unlike DJI drones, Autel drones lack a “geofence” that grounds them upon entering restricted zones within the capital. Moreover, Autel hasn't borne the same reputational scars as DJI following the Commerce Department's blacklist and the Defense Department's warnings.

Seeking to capitalize on DJI's struggles, Autel announced in 2020 that it would move the manufacturing of some components to the U.S. The company assured law enforcement that its Evo II aircraft were made in the U.S. “with foreign and domestic parts and labor.”

However, this claim has come under scrutiny, as Randall Warnas, former Autel CEO in America, revealed to Forbes that the devices were essentially assembled in China, with only the camera attached in the U.S. Warnas asserted, “It was never made in the U.S.”

Despite the attempt to court the U.S. market, Autel conceded that legislative initiatives like Florida's ban and the American Security Drone Act have negatively impacted sales. Still, the company is looking to gain a foothold in the federal market and boost its reputation by joining the program, a Pentagon initiative that endorses trusted small unmanned aerial systems for government use.

Warnas, a former DJI sales manager before his short tenure as Autel's CEO, downplayed fears of Chinese drones being converted into surveillance tools. He argued that law enforcement's drone usage primarily involves recording routine events. He questioned the relevance of potential Chinese access to such data and urged against a hasty ban on DJI and Autel until viable, cost-effective alternatives can be produced outside of China.

For law enforcement officers, economic considerations often outweigh political concerns. Martin, the drone trainer, observed, “They just want something that's reliable and safe,” and they're not overly concerned about the politics of it.

Ongoing political concerns about Chinese-made drones

Nevertheless, concerns about Chinese aren't purely hypothetical. The Pentagon has identified risks associated with DJI drones sending data back to China, and concerns about data privacy and national security have been echoed by the Commerce Department, Congress, and even the .

DJI, for its part, has been taking steps to address these concerns, such as developing a “government edition” of their drones that restricts data transmission.

Moreover, DJI has implemented a Local Data Mode that prevents internet traffic to and from its DJI Pilot app, enhancing data privacy and security significantly. This feature allows users to fly their DJI drones in situations where they might not want the data they generate to leave the device, effectively assuaging fears of data leaks.

Autel has also taken measures to ensure the data security of its drones, developing similar features that restrict data transmission. However, whether these measures will be enough to address government concerns and whether they will keep DJI and Autel at the top of the drone market in the face of mounting legislative pressure remain to be seen.

As it stands, the U.S. drone market is at a crossroads. The commercial viability, availability, and utility of DJI and Autel drones have made them popular choices, but national security concerns threaten to upend their market dominance. Meanwhile, American and European manufacturers are struggling to produce cost-effective alternatives that match the reliability and performance of their Chinese counterparts.

With several legislative initiatives in the pipeline aimed at restricting Chinese drones, the landscape of the U.S. drone market could change dramatically in the coming years. Law enforcement agencies, commercial users, and drone manufacturers will all be watching closely to see how these initiatives unfold.

In the end, it's a balance between efficiency and security, affordability and control. How the U.S. navigates these complex issues will not only determine the future of its drone market but could also set precedents for broader technological and trade relationships with China.


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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