The Interior Department is preparing a new agency policy that would drastically limit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles made overseas, The Wall Street Journal reports. The new policy is due to be formally announced today. The agency worries that information collected by drones could be “valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments.”
The agency has around 800 drones. According to the Journal, agency officials have admitted that all of them are Chinese-made or contain Chinese parts.
The Interior Department temporarily suspended the use of drones from Chinese companies like DJI, the industry leader, last October. Now the department is making that ban permanent—though it will grant exceptions for natural disasters and other emergencies.
Some Interior Department employees say that restrictions on the use of foreign drones have already hampered their work. The restrictions have “weakened their ability to survey erosion, monitor endangered species, and inspect dams,” according to the Journal.
The Interior Department estimates that it saved $14 million in 2018 by using drones instead of helicopters or airplanes. And, of course, it avoids putting federal workers in harm’s way.
But in an alert last year, the Department of Homeland Security warned that drones made by Chinese manufacturers, including DJI, were sending data back to their parent company, where it would be available to the Chinese government. “The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data,” the DHS wrote.
DJI had been working with federal officials on a new drone design that would avoid sending any data back to DJI servers. The project seemed to be progressing well last summer, but Interior Secretary David Bernhardt cut it short last fall after conferring with US intelligence officials.
The US military has been phasing out its use of foreign-made drones in recent years. Officials hope that a government preference for US-made drones will stimulate America’s drone-making sector.