By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Interior Department is grounding its fleet of about 800 Chinese-made drones but will allow their use for emergency situations, the department said on Wednesday.
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order affirming a temporary cessation of non-emergency operations adopted in October as it ensures “cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed,” the department said.
The order allows for approved situations for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.” It also allows for training operations.
Bernhardt in October also ordered a halt to additional Interior department purchases of Chinese-made drones.
China’s SZ DJI Technology Co Ltd, the world’s largest maker of consumer drones, said in a statement on Wednesday it is “extremely disappointed” in the Interior order that “inappropriately treats a technology’s country of origin as a litmus test for its performance, security and reliability.”
The company added that the concerns have “little to do with security and are instead part of a politically-motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits.”
In May 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned U.S. firms of the risks to company data from Chinese-made drones. In a notice, DHS said U.S. officials have “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 or otherwise abuses that access.”
Bernhardt’s order said the department will issue implementing guidance within 30 days.
The order noted that Interior uses drones for “assessing, collecting, and maintaining information that relates to our critical American energy, transportation, and defense infrastructure.”
Some information collected during drone operations “has the potential to be valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments,” it added.
In June, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “domestic production capability for small unmanned aerial systems is essential to the national defense.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)