GBA Brief

Can DJI’s drones survive America’s darker political skies?

A month ago we reported how the GBA’s skies were buzzing with drone trials. But the daddy of the drone industry – Shenzhen’s DJI – has set its sights on more distant horizons, including new customers from the federal and state governments of the United States. In the current political climate, that plan might soon lose altitude. 

The problem for company bosses is that it has to convince a suspicious set of lawmakers that its drones won’t transmit revealing information back to home base. One example was the warning from the Department of Homeland Security in May that companies were risking their data by operating Chinese-made drones. There was more hostile coverage a few weeks later, when the Senate Transportation Subcommittee discussed the Shenzhen-based firm’s grip on much of the drone technology marketed in the US. “American geospatial information is flown to Chinese data centres at an unprecedented level. This literally gives a Chinese company a view from above of our nation,” warned one of the expert witnesses.

DJI responded directly by letter, explaining that its drones don’t share any data unless the pilot expressly authorises it. And in another bid to reassure its customers that it isn’t spying on them, it is promoting a new operating mode called Government Edition, which prevents the drones from transferring data to third parties. 

The protocols mean that information can only be transmitted to controllers specified by their operators, it says, although whether this wins over the lawmakers remains to be seen. 

DJI’s letter to the transportation subcommittee tried to talk up the positives, highlighting how state agencies in the US were relying on their drones to save lives. Police in New York deployed one to defuse a standoff with a gunman, and in California they put up a drone to find a lost boy, for instance. 

Also part of the charm offensive: an announcement that DJI would be repurposing one of its warehouses in California as an assembly plant for the drones that are more popular with government agencies. 

By putting the drones together on American soil, DJI hopes to meet the stipulations under the Trade Agreement Act, which restrict some government agencies to purchasing products made in the US. Most of its current customers in the public sector have been relying on waivers to circumvent the trade law, but DJI’s concern is that it could be barred completely, especially if the tech row worsens. 

DJI knows that it needs to look more to companies and the public services as future customers. Sales to individuals (or ‘hobbyists’) haven’t been growing as fast as previously and it hasn’t even launched a new recreational drone so far this year, analysts have noted. The talk is that more profits are going to come from software and services as the market matures, not just one-off sales of the hardware. But that is also going to mean convincing a new set of customers who are much more cautious about how their information is transmitted and stored, putting pressure on DJI to prove that they have ring-fenced their data.