Ottawa using Chinese drones grounded by Washington over national security concerns

A DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone is demonstrated at the DJI booth during CES 2019 in January 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nearly all of the drones owned by Transport Canada are made by a Chinese firm whose products the U.S. Department of the Interior has grounded over concerns they could be used for espionage. 

In January, the U.S. Department of the Interior ordered its drones, made by Shenzhen-based DJI, as well as all others made in China or with Chinese parts, to stay on the ground unless needed to respond to emergencies. Some in Washington were concerned that the fleet of about 800 drones may have been transmitting photography and video back to manufacturers in China, which could be accessed by the Chinese government and then used for spying or cyberattacks. DJI said there was no security risk to using its products.

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Talking Point

This is the second time Ottawa has diverged from Washington on national security concerns about Chinese technology. In February, The Logic broke the news that Canada’s military would not stop using Chinese surveillance cameras banned by the U.S. over security concerns. Meanwhile, Washington has invested significantly in trying to get Canada to block Huawei from participating in Canada’s 5G network.

Seven of the eight drones Transport Canada owns are made by DJI, and the department has no plans to stop using them. 

“To compare Transport Canada’s fleet of drones to that of the United States’ is not accurate. Transport Canada only owns eight drones, seven of which are made in China. This amounts to only 1% of the number of drones owned by the United States,” said Alexandre Desjardins, a spokesperson for Transport Canada.

“Furthermore, Transport Canada uses its drones for non-security sensitive tasks such as training purposes by our inspectors.”

The department’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Centre of Expertise owns five DJI Mavic 2 Pro drones, and its Quebec regional enforcement team has two DJI drones. Its innovation centre has one made in Canada by Montreal-based ARA Robotics.

Ottawa’s divergence from Washington comes as the two countries are enmeshed in complex negotiations around COVID-19 on a range of issues, including a U.S. attempt to seize medical supplies purchased by Canada, as well as discussion on when and how to open the border. 

In February, The Logic reported that Canada’s military had no plans to stop using Chinese surveillance cameras banned by the U.S. over national security concerns. Meanwhile, Washington has launched a full-court press to convince Canada to ban controversial Chinese telecom Huawei from participating in Canada’s 5G network. Robert Blair, a top White House advisor, was in Ottawa last month to meet with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and warn him that Washington could stop sharing certain intelligence with Canada if it doesn’t exclude Huawei. 

DJI welcomed Ottawa’s decision to keep using its drones, and said that Transport Canada has not discussed the U.S. Department of the Interior ban or any other national security concerns with the company. 

“I can confirm that our conversations with Transport Canada have been largely focused on advanced drone operations and drone flight safety, and that the agency has not expressed any concerns related to DJI products and national security,” said Michael Oldenburg, DJI’s senior communications manager for North America. 

“The political situation in Canada, as it relates to Canadian trade with China, is not the same as it is in the United States,” said Oldenburg. “These cybersecurity concerns are being artificially created by the U.S. government, even though their own internal agencies say that there isn’t an issue … to try to handicap our ability to do business in the U.S. and artificially prop up U.S.-based and a fully U.S.-manufactured and -assembled drone economy.” 

Oldenburg said that most other firms use Chinese parts, even if they manufacture their drones in the U.S., and that there is no U.S. drone firm that has nearly the market share his does. DJI had about 77 per cent of the U.S. market as of October 2019, according to drone registrations with the Federal Aviation Administration. Second-place Intel had four per cent. DJI is also dominant among U.S. state and local public safety agencies. As of March, the four drones most used by the agencies were from the firm. That was before it donated drones to 43 law enforcement agencies to help enforce social distancing amid the pandemic. DJI has not donated drones to any Canadian agencies amid COVID-19, Oldenburg said. 

Last year, DJI worked with the U.S. Interior Department to add security features and block their drones from transmitting data to others. After over 2,000 flight tests, the department decided in July 2019 that it was satisfied with the security precautions. But that fall, intelligence agencies convinced the department to take a second look. 

The U.S. Army banned DJI drones in 2017, claiming the firm shared law enforcement data with Beijing. However, some Interior Department workers say the grounding of the department’s drone fleet, all 800-odd of which are made in China or with Chinese parts, has limited their ability to do important work, including monitoring endangered species and inspecting dams. As of January, the department had used the drones about a dozen times in emergency situations like monitoring floods and fires. 

The U.S. ban could soon be much more widespread. The Trump administration has drafted an executive order that would ban all federal agencies and departments from buying or using foreign-made drones, according to a March report from TechCrunch. If signed, it would give agencies one month to comply. Previous efforts to impose a mass ban of Chinese-made drones have had limited success. In September, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed such a bill, but it has not become law. 

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Meanwhile in Canada, Transport Canada is currently soliciting bids for a drone system for its national aerial surveillance program. The successful bidder will assist manned aircraft in monitoring Canada’s North between N60 and N72 degrees of latitude, according to the tender. 

Remote monitoring of wide swathes of the country is one of U.S. intelligence officials’ concerns. Oldenburg said DJI is not planning to bid on the project directly, but that its drones are purchased by many other companies and then resold to the government, and that could happen with this project.