New Florida restrictions on drones manufactured by a “foreign country of concern” set to take effect this week have left local police, firefighters, and even mosquito control teams scrambling to maintain normal operations and ensure basic safety.
A Ron DeSantis-backed ban technically applies to drones manufactured in more than half a dozen countries, but its most clear target is dominant Chinese drone-making giant DJI, whose products are widely used amongst government agencies. Local officials and law enforcement opposed to the ban worry the sudden departure from trusted DJI drones to inferior US-made alternatives—some of which spontaneously combust—could unnecessarily put workers’ safety in jeopardy to score some cheap, tough-on-China political points.
“In one year and a half, we had five failures of the manufacturers on the [approved] list. DJI, none,” Orlando Police Sgt. David Cruz said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “That’s going to put us in danger, our officers in danger, and the public in danger, when these drones continue to fall out of the sky.”
Why does Ron DeSantis want to ban DJI drones?
The new drone restrictions stem from a broader DeSantis executive order passed late last year with the state purpose of making it more difficult for “hostile foreign powers” to do business in Florida. That order bans government agencies from procuring products made by companies based in China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. DeSantis, who is widely believed to be eyeing a 2024 presidential run, said these broad restrictions were necessary to prevent China from “worming its way into our nation’s data storage systems.”
DeSantis used similar language back in February when he proposed a new “Digital Bill of Rights” that, amongst other things, seeks to ban TikTok in universities and public schools. Those concerns over Chinese espionage sound scary and are hypothetically possible, but so far neither DeSantis or any other lawmakers has come forward with any concrete evidence for their fears.
A Florida-approved, made-in-the-USA drone caught fire in a police car
With DJI and other widely used drones out of the picture, government agencies will instead have to turn to more expensive and arguably less practical US-made alternatives included in the state’s Approved Drone Manufacturer List. The sudden change marks a radical departure for police agencies in particular, which have spent over $200 million on DJI drones in recent years, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Most agencies speaking with the Times confirmed they had already shelved many of their DJI drones but some feared the replacements were unsafe. In one case, a Palm Beach County Sheriff said one of the approved devices caught on fire while it was sitting unplugged in an officer’s vehicle. The officer reportedly had to frantically pull over and dump the flaming hunk of hardware off on the side of the road.
“Our drone operators do not want to park these drones in their cars, in their garages, in their homes,” Palm Beach County Sheriff Col. Robert Allen said. “We’ve never had one issue with the DJIs since our inception.”
Other critics of the ban said it’s both unnecessary and arbitrary since officers can still user other tech like smartwatches and wearables made in China. Even on the eve of the ban’s enforcement, agencies still haven’t shown any proof that DJI drones are transferring sensitive data to China.
“It’s political grandstanding,” James Andrew Lewis, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic & International Studies said in an interview with State Scoop.
Grandstanding or not, DeSantis isn’t the only lawmaker interested in restricting China-linked drones. In the final days of the Trump administration, the now-indicted former president placed DJI on the Commerce Department’s “entity list,” which prevents the company from buying US products or importing American tech. Not long after, during the Biden Administration’s Treasury Department added DJI to its own blacklist which bars US investors from buying or selling stock in the company. That blacklisting was, in part, due to the Biden administration’s claim DJI products were used to carry out the Chinese government’s surveillance of its persecuted Uighur Muslim minority. The Pentagon made a similar move last year placing DJI on a list of companies it believes have connections to the Chinese military.
“We’ve stated unequivocally that we have had nothing to do with treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang,” DJI’s Head of Global Policy Adam Welsh told CNBC in a recent interview. “The truth is that we’ve gone through numerous audits of our firmware and of our products.”