WASHINGTON — Federal agencies are split on how best to handle national security concerns surrounding popular and ubiquitous Chinese-made drones, with some policymakers chafing at more protectionist approaches.
The Department of the Interior, which uses drones for tasks like wildlife conservation and the monitoring of the state of infrastructure, grounded all those made in China or built with Chinese parts in October. It reaffirmed that decision in January, saying its entire fleet of 810 drones would essentially remain out of commission until it can confirm they pose no security threat.
Yet the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget raised warnings last year about congressional legislation that would make it impossible for the United States government to buy Chinese drones at all. The Agriculture Department, which uses drones to survey farmland, for example, said it could limit the ability “to carry out our mission-crucial work” and “halt” the Forest Service’s use of drones altogether.
The Trump administration has engaged in a steady campaign to wall off America from Chinese technology, saying the Chinese government could use it to spy on the United States. The administration has been trying to keep Huawei, the telecom equipment giant, out of the next generation of wireless networks both in the United States and abroad and has increased scrutiny of Chinese investment in sectors deemed “critical,” like telecom and tech. Federal officials have also investigated whether mobile apps owned by Chinese companies could leak sensitive data.
Their efforts have been cheered on by members of Congress from both parties, many of whom have written legislation that would restrict China’s ability to operate in the United States.
But the debate over drones, which are primarily made either in China or with Chinese parts, shows how attempts to “decouple” America from Chinese industry can crash into the realities of the global tech supply chain.
DJI, a drone manufacturer based in Shenzhen, China, is by far the industry leader, with analysts estimating it has a market share of 70 percent or higher. Its drones are used not only by government agencies but by legions of hobbyists. Even some competing products that are made in America include Chinese parts.
“Decoupling isn’t like a magic wand where you just say, ‘We’re not going to use these people anymore,’” said James Lewis, the director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The prevalence of DJI’s products has drawn concern from government officials for years. In 2017, a memo from the Los Angeles office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had “moderate confidence” that DJI was providing critical United States “infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.”
While DJI denied the claims, the concerns have persisted. Last year, Congress approved a measure blocking defense agencies from buying Chinese drones.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has also introduced legislation that would effectively bar federal agencies from buying drones made in China, accusing the companies of intellectual property theft and endangering American security.
The proposed law triggered concerns from various corners of the executive branch.
In letters obtained by The New York Times, Stephen L. Censky, the deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, told the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget that the agency had major concerns with the law. A letter, dated late September, said the law would “severely impact the establishment, development and implementation” of the Agriculture Department’s drone program “to carry out our mission-crucial work.”
Mr. Censky also said in the letter that drones could be useful to the agency’s efforts in nature conservation, combating wildfires and monitoring the health of forests.
By December, the agency had seen a new version of the draft law, according to a second letter, but Mr. Censky said it was still “concerned that none of our previous comments were considered or integrated into this rewrite.”
The budget office also said it opposed a version of the ban in a memo circulated in September, which was first reported by Politico. It expressed concerns that prohibiting government use of Chinese drones would prompt Chinese officials to do the same to American companies, hindering their growth. And it said that “banning the use of these systems without any viable alternatives would put undue burden on federal agencies.”
The next month, the Interior Department grounded any drones made in China, or with Chinese parts. Last week, it formalized the move — with officials saying that it was “without question” aimed at China — while allowing drones to be used in emergencies.
The aircraft will not be used again until they can be vetted for security flaws, the agency has said. Nonemergency missions will use other aircraft or helicopters.
The Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Management and Budget did not respond to requests for comment.
Representative Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and a sponsor of the legislation that would bar federal agencies from buying Chinese drones, said he was unaware of the letters from the Agriculture Department but noted that defense agencies had raised concerns about the flying devices.
“While I would defer to the Department of Agriculture on the Dairy Margin Coverage Program, when it comes to threats to our national security, I am inclined to agree with the security-minded experts,” he said.
Critics of DJI say that it’s important for the United States to develop its own drone companies that can compete with Chinese firms.
One California company, Skydio, makes its drones stateside but still uses some Chinese parts. Its chief executive, Adam Bry, said that all the core components were American — and that the company was moving away from using the Chinese parts altogether.
DJI has tried to soothe the Trump administration’s fears, moving some of its production to California and introducing a version of its product explicitly for government users.
In a statement, DJI said it supported the development of standards to defuse security concerns about drones, instead of an all-out ban on Chinese products.
“They are protectionist ploys to exclude successful competitors in favor of domestic suppliers that don’t exist,” a spokesman said.
“Federal officials and lawmakers supporting this country of origin restriction have little understanding of how professionals use drones to do their work, and cannot explain how using drones to manage wildfires, support wildlife conservation and monitor the health of forests is somehow sensitive or puts U.S. national security at risk,” he said.