President Trump issued an executive order on Jan. 18 that instructs federal agencies to assess the risks of the procurement and use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from foreign drone manufacturers with the goal of removing them in favor of domestically produced UAS.
“It is the policy of the United States, therefore, to prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to procure UAS that present unacceptable risks and are manufactured by, or contain software or critical electronic components from, foreign adversaries, and to encourage the use of domestically produced UAS,” the order states.
The executive order covers the UAS itself, software, and critical components manufactured by foreign companies. It includes indirect procurement through a contractor, existing contracts, and federal funding or assistance for the procurement of UAS. The executive order directs agencies to review UAS use within their agency and then submit a report to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which will detail their authority to take actions on UAS that are prohibited by this executive order.
Within 60 days of the executive order, agencies are ordered to send a report to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with manufacturer, model, and relevant security protocols for UAS that are used by their agencies. The executive order instructs the DNI, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, and OSTP to review the reports and outline next steps that could include the removal of certain UAS from federal service.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will then propose new regulations in October, according to the order.
“The use of UAS and critical components manufactured and developed by foreign adversaries, or by persons under their control, may allow this sensitive information to be accessed by or transferred to foreign adversaries,” the order states. “Furthermore, the manufacturing of UAS involves combining several critical components, including advanced manufacturing techniques, artificial intelligence, microelectronic components, and multi-spectral sensors. The Nation’s capability to produce UAS and certain critical UAS components domestically is critical for national defense and the security and strength of our defense industrial base.”
The executive order specifically calls out North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran as adversary countries.
In November 2019, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned about the danger of UAS manufactured abroad in a private bulletin. The Department of the Interior (DoI) grounded a fleet of about 800 drones in January 2020 due to security concerns.
China-based drone manufacturer DJI, which owns 75-80 percent of the drone market worldwide, will be affected by this order. During a June 2019 Senate panel, experts warned of the potential security risks of DJI drones and massive data flows of geo-spatial information that could be sent back to China. One expert told the panel she “is hesitant to use any DJI system for any important research or approved flights over critical infrastructure.”
DJI called cybersecurity concerns related to foreign drone companies politically motivated in response to DoI’s grounding of UAS in January 2020.
“We are opposed to the politically-motivated country of origin restrictions masquerading as cybersecurity concerns and call for policymakers and industry stakeholders to create clear standards that will give commercial and government drone operators the assurance they need to confidently evaluate drone technology on the merits of performance, security and reliability, no matter where it is made,” DJI said in a January 2020 statement.
It is unclear how this executive order will be handled once the new Biden administration begins on Jan. 20.