Should America be purchasing drones from places like China and Iran? And if America stops, would they be able to sufficiently replace them with drones manufactured elsewhere?
At least 14 federal agencies have purchased drones, in some cases hundreds or more. This includes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The world’s largest producer of drones is DJI, a company based in Shenzhen, China. Many fear that the Chinese government may be using these products to spy or steal data, as the Chinese smartphone and telecommunications company Huawei has been repeatedly accused of.
What the legislation does
The American Security Drone Act would prevent the U.S. from purchasing any drones or “unmanned aircraft systems” from a nation identified as a national security threat. That would include China and Iran, and would also include:
- Any nation considered under the “influence or control” of China or the Communist Party of China, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security.
- Any nation classified as a “national security risk” by the Department of Homeland Security.
- Any country that is “subject to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government,” according to the Director of National Intelligence.
The legislation would also require any federal agencies currently using drones from such hostile foreign nations to cease within 180 days of enactment.
The Senate version was introduced on September 18 as bill number S. 2502, by Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL). The House version was introduced a month later on October 13 as bill number H.R. 4753, by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX2).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the legislation helps our national security, and prevents the possibility of drones being used by other nations against us for nefarious purposes, such as spying.
“There are nations around the world, like China, that are actively building up their militaries to compete with America,” Sen. Scott said in a press release. “China is stealing our technology and intellectual property, yet the U.S. Government continues to buy critical technology, like drones, with American tax dollars from Chinese companies backed by their government.”
“For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to China and allowed their technology into some of the most critical operations of the U.S. Government. This has to stop,” Sen. Scott continued. “The [legislation] protects our information and national security by prohibiting the federal government and our military from buying drones manufactured in countries that are our adversaries.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that these foreign drones save both money and lives.
The Interior Department has used drones “to manage fires, survey erosion, monitor endangered species and inspect dams,” and “in 2018, officials used drones to rescue a Hawaii resident trapped by lava flows,” the Wall Street Journal reported. The publication quoted an Interior Department official estimating that the department’s drones saved American taxpayers $14 million last year.
Opponents also note that, if the bill passes, there aren’t exactly a lot of options for the government to use instead.
“If the US military were to ban DJI’s drones from service entirely, which drones will it allow?” Quartz technology editor Mike Murphy wrote in 2016. “After the exit of 3D Robotics from the consumer drone industry, there are no major US drone manufacturers, other than GoPro, which struggled to produce its first drone in 2016. What’s left is a hodgepodge of lower-end Chinese drones, and Parrot, a French firm.”
Odds of passage
The House version, out for less than two weeks, has attracted two bipartisan cosponsors: one Republican and one Democrat, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-AL3) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM2). It awaits a potential vote in the House Homeland Security Committee.
The Senate version has attracted six bipartisan cosponsors: four Republicans and two Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Considering the bipartisan nature of this legislation in both chambers, this one may have a reasonable chance of passage.