China’s dominance of the small drone market, particularly in the U.S., raises a slew of risks related to how the technology is used, where the sensor data collected by the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) goes, and the impact on domestic drone manufacturing, a faculty member of the National Defense University’s cyber war college told a Senate panel this week.

There is an increasing use of small drones, which refer to UAS weighing less than 55-pounds, toward an “Internet of drones” that holds tremendous “promise for commerce and for prosperity,” Harry Wingo, faculty at the College of Information and Cyberspace at NDU, told the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee’s Security Subcommittee on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, this promise may be marred by an overwhelming near monopoly by a foreign company, DJI out of China.”

A popular quadcopter UAV sold China’s DJI. Photo: DJI

Wingo said DJI’s market share worldwide may exceed 70 percent and in the U.S. top 80 percent.  The risks stemming from the broad use and deployment of DJI’s drones include massive data flows of geo-spatial information back to China, which the Chinese government has access too, he said.

“And If you take the photos that happen to be collected across the nation, there may be a matter of interest over time,” Wingo said in response to a question from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska)., the subcommittee chairman, about the threats posed by the DJI drones, which are sold retail throughout the U.S. and are widely flown by recreational users.

“You’ve got a mosaic, but you also have a chronicle,” Wingo said. He added that China has been clear about its plans to dominate in artificial intelligence, which is critical to the networks that will manage widespread use of drones, and “the issue is when you can stitch together with nation-state capabilities all of those pieces, you come up with a very damaging information set that puts the nation at risk.”

Wingo said that 5G communications networks combined with AI and machine learning will eventually allow the Chinese to “draw out strategic level insight that didn’t exist before” through the widely deployed fleet of drones.

Catherine Cahill, director of the UAS Center of Excellence at the Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, told the subcommittee that even though DJI has said customers of its drones can turn off the ability of their products to submit data to the manufacturer, reports about Chinese companies having to submit data to their government means the company’s statements can’t be trusted.

The university’s UAS center “is hesitant to use any DJI system for any important research or approved flights over critical infrastructure,” she said in her written testimony.

Another risk is the dual-use nature of small UAS, which can be used for productive purposes such as commercial applications and recreational use, but also for military uses that China can control, Wingo said.

Pointing to the successful use of large UAS by the U.S. military in helping prosecute the war on terror, he said, “Now consider how future drone swarms may be flown to deadly military effect from thousands of miles away. America’s current de facto, ‘Buy Chinese’ drone situation may be helping China to build just that military capability.”

Finally, in terms of major risks, Wingo said U.S. dependency on DJI’s drones runs deep, noting that the New York City Policy Department uses them as do other major urban area law enforcement agencies due to lack of domestic small UAS manufacturing. He highlighted that the Defense Departmant has prohibited the use of DJI’s drones.

“Dependency on China for our aviation future is unacceptable,” Wingo said. He recommended that Congress needs to direct “Buy USA” when it comes to small drones, that future drone highways be constructed as open source infrastructure, and “synchronizing” domestic AI initiatives with his first two recommendations.

Brian Wynne, president and CEO for the U.S.-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, told the panel that small drones are manufactured throughout America, which is also “the largest national market in the world.”

More than 1.4 million drones are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, with more than 400,000 for commercial purposes, he said.

Asked by Sullivan what the challenge is to increasing domestic drone manufacturing, Wynne said most small UAS built in the U.S. are typically aimed at “up-market” customers for specific uses. As regulations begin to permit extended UAS operations and nighttime flying, the market for “sophisticated drones” made by U.S. companies will expand, he said.

Cahill, the director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Systems Integration, also highlighted that UAS and their various sensor and accessories are targets of industrial espionage. She said some universities and commercial organizations don’t realize that UAS technology is sensitive.

“This, when combined with the nature of academic settings, leading-edge academic research, and student workers, makes universities susceptible to industrial espionage and the training of foreign assets in otherwise protected technologies if precautions are not taken,” Cahill warned.