Interior Dept. Grounds Its Drones Over Chinese Spying Fears

The order formalizes a decision last year to ground the federal agency’s drones pending an internal security investigation.

A drone made by the Chinese company DJI flying over Brooklyn in 2018.
A drone made by the Chinese company DJI flying over Brooklyn in 2018.Credit...Drew Angerer/Getty Images

By Lisa Friedman and

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department announced on Wednesday that it was grounding its entire fleet of drones out of concerns that Chinese parts in them might be used for spying, making exceptions only for emergency missions like fighting wildfires and search-and-rescue operations.

The move, an extension of an order made last year, reflects concerns that drones made in China could expose sensitive data. Unease is growing in Washington about potential security vulnerabilities presented by Chinese technology, though Chinese companies have denied that their products pose a security threat.

Last year, pending an internal security investigation, the agency temporarily grounded its drones, which are used for surveying critical infrastructure like dams, collecting information about endangered species, conducting search-and-rescue operations and tracking wildfires.

The new order, signed by David Bernhardt, the secretary of the interior, says the current fleet of 810 drones will remain grounded “while we ensure that cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed.” The order does not explicitly mention China, but a senior administration official said it was “without question” aimed at drones made or assembled in China.

DJI, a privately held Chinese company whose drones are used by the Interior Department, said in a statement that it was “disappointed” with the new order and accused the Trump administration of political motives.

“This decision makes clear that the U.S. government’s concerns about DJI drones, which make up a small portion of the D.O.I. fleet, 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,” Michael Oldenburg, a DJI spokesman, said.

The grounding order does not apply to private drones used for personal or commercial purposes.

A senior administration official said the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies would assist the Interior Department with a review of its drones that would include a “significant tear down” to the nuts and bolts of the machines.

In the meantime, the agency will allow drones to be used for emergency situations like disaster monitoring, and will make exceptions for training flights.

According to the Department of Interior, since the agency grounded its fleet in October, it has conducted 12 drone flights, all related to firefighting missions or flood monitoring. The new order does not define what will be included in emergency operations, but one official said it could include monitoring for cracks in dams, which would be considered a safety issue.

Other drone missions, like conducting geological surveys, studying habitats and monitoring the breeding grounds of the sage grouse, an imperiled ground-nesting bird that is found across millions of acres of oil- and gas-rich sagebrush lands, will be conducted by airplane or helicopter, the official said.

The move is the latest by the federal government to target Chinese technology firms.

In recent years, regulators have cracked down on Chinese wireless network equipment and expressed concerns about the national security implications of Chinese companies’ operation of consumer mobile applications in the United States. They have also made it difficult for American companies to supply certain Chinese firms.

DJI’s drones — which are popular with both hobbyists and public safety officials — have been one persistent point of contention. The company is seen as the market leader, with analysts at times estimating its market share at 70 percent or higher.

In 2017, federal officials said they were worried that DJI drones were sending data back to China, which the firm strenuously denied, and the Army ordered its employees not to use the company’s products. The fear is that the Chinese government is seeing what the United States government is seeing through DJI drone flights.

The company has taken steps since then to reassure American officials. Last year, it announced that it was moving a small part of its production to Cerritos, Calif. It also rolled out a version of its drone specifically for government use.

Mr. Oldenburg said the company’s technology designed for United States government agencies had been “independently tested and validated” by security consultants and federal officials, “which proves today’s decision has nothing to do with security.”