The Army, DJI, Data Security, and American Alternatives

There has been chatter going on in the public safety drone industry for some time now, but it wasn’t until August 2nd of this year - just a few days ago - that the “other shoe” finally dropped:

The US Army issued a stop-use order for all DJI products for Army units around the world.

“Due to increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products, it is directed that the U.S. Army halt use of all DJI product,” read the memo from Lt. General Joseph Anderson, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff.

“This guidance applies to all DJI UAS and any system that employs DJI electrical components or software including, but not limited to, flight computers, cameras, radios, batteries, speed controllers, GPS units, handheld control stations, or devices with DJI software applications installed.”

The concern is that DJI is a Chinese company, and has said in the past that if called upon by the Chinese government to release its customers’ data, it would.

With hundreds of DJI drones in use in various capacities within the Army alone, and hundreds of thousands if not millions around the world, security experts are concerned that critical infrastructure data may be getting into the hands of a foreign government.

While the United States’ relationship with the Chinese government has thawed in recent years, there are still many who consider them an adversary, and are concerned about a foreign actor having this information.

For their part, DJI has said they were surprised by the Army’s ruling, and are actively seeking meetings with Army officials to help mitigate any concerns they may have.

“We are surprised and disappointed to read reports of the U.S. Army’s unprompted restriction on DJI drones as we were not consulted during their decision,” read a statement from Michael Perry, DJI’s PR chief.  

“We are happy to work directly with any organization, including the U.S. Army, that has concerns about our management of cyber issues.”

And just yesterday DJI announced that they had released a software fix that allows users to fly DJI products without internet data transfer.

So what does this mean for the rest of the public safety community? Will the fire/rescue and law enforcement ranks also stop using DJI?

It’s too early to say for sure, but in some cases, I think it may mean a reluctance to purchase these products.

Particularly in the law enforcement community, where information security is vital, there has already been more questions among our clientele about alternatives to DJI.

This seems to be less of a concern among the fire/rescue community, but certainly if a state, county or even city-wide decision were made to eliminate DJI, that would have far reaching complications.

The good news is, there are safeguards and alternatives.

If you are concerned about unauthorized data sharing, apps like DroneSense - a self-contained flying and data management platform - can help ensure that no information is going to DJI’s servers, even when you’re flying DJI aircraft.

You can also avoid uploading your flight logs to DJI’s servers for storage and analytics, although the DJI GO app does store low-resolution copies of your photos and video, as well as your flight logs on the app, so in theory, those could be accessed.

Finally, if these solutions don’t allay your department’s fears about flying DJI products, there are alternatives.

The PSI InstantEye, for example, is an all-weather, small UAV capable of sending back live images and video, as well as thermal data. PSI has sold thousands of units to the US Military, and they continue to be employed in mission-critical locations around the globe. They’re also made in America.

In addition, Draganfly and Aeryon both make products that are purpose-built for the public safety space, though both start in the 40-thousand dollar range, and both companies are headquartered in Canada.