A Congressional committee has approved a measure, drafted by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, directing the U.S. government to buy domestic-made drones following warnings that unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by a Chinese company are spying on the U.S.
The Senate Appropriations Committee cited a 2017 bulletin by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that says a Chinese drone manufacturer was providing critical data about U.S. infrastructure and law enforcement to China and was involved in espionage.
Murphy, a member of the committee, said that despite the information from ICE, the U.S. government continued to purchase Chinese drones.
“It’s absolutely outrageous that even though we found out Chinese drones were spying on us, the U.S. government continued to buy Chinese drones,” Murphy said in a news release announcing the Appropritations Committee vote.
Earlier in May, he wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis that vulnerabilities to U.S. national security exposed by the use of Chinese-made drones “pose a tremendous national security risk” because information obtained by the Chinese government could be used to conduct physical or cyber attacks against U.S. civilian and military targets.
China-based DJI Science and Technology, which makes the drones facing U.S. criticism, said last November that ICE’s bulletin was “based on clearly false and misleading claims from an unidentified source.”
It said it does not access customers’ flight logs, photos or videos unless customers “actively upload and share” the data with the company.
Murphy, a Democrat, also won provisions in the legislation that would increase transparency and accountability around drone purchases, including an investigation into whether any Chinese drones are still used by the U.S. government.
Before becoming law, the measure must clear other hurdles that include approval by the Senate and House before being signed by the president.
RAD?CO, a manufacturer in Plainfield that partners with a North Carolina firm to make drones, said the Chinese drones are being sold at artificially lower prices to undercut U.S. manufacturers.
RAD?CO drones can sell for $3,500 while Chinese-made unmanned aircraft will typically sell for $900, said Keith Lovendale, chief executive officer of RAD?CO .
“It’s an artificially priced product, which makes it nearly impossible to compete with,” he said. “It’s a jobs issue, a buy-American issue.”
RAD?CO manufactures air sampling instrumentation and other products that detect airborne radiation.
Lovendale agreed that Chinese ownership of drone manufacturing potentially puts the U.S. at a disadvantage as sensitive data are collected and stored by drones and downloaded by overseas adversaries.
The unmanned aerial equipment are often used to map areas or test air quality at sites such as utilities, nuclear plants and shipyards where information related to national security or proprietary industry data would be downloaded by Chinese operators.
“We end up being held hostage by them. It’s a threat,” said sales manager Matt Torma.
Drones are increasingly used by police to fight crime, insurance companies to assess property damage, the military to spy on enemy forces, photographers to get aerial views and numerous other functions. But they’re new and often operate without rules.
“We’re still at that infancy stage,” Torma said.