U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has issued a temporary cessation of non-emergency unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) fleet operations.

This order reinforced a December decision by the agency to ground all of its drones manufactured in China or containing parts manufactured in China, pending a review of the security risks posed. Every drone in the fleet fell under these circumstances. The new order does not single out China, instead identifying designated UAS as those manufactured by specified foreign-owned companies or with specified foreign-manufactured components.

The Department of the Interior has used its fleet of drones for emergency management, fighting wildland fires, conducting search and rescue, surveying federal land, collecting research data, and assisting law enforcement.

The order applies to all bureaus and offices within the Department of the Interior. Heads of the affected bureaus and offices have been directed to:

  • Limit department funds from being spent on designated UAS.
  • Condition all parties pursuant to department contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements that designated UAS will not be operated on department-managed lands.
  • Condition all pursuant to department contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements on the requirement that designated UAS will not be operated on department-managed lands.

In a statement, drone manufacturer DJI shared its disappointment with this order, noting that its products that have been designed specifically for the DOI and other federal agencies have been independently tested and validated by U.S. cybersecurity consultants and the federal agencies themselves. The company called this a politically motivated country-of-origin restriction masquerading as cybersecurity concerns.

“DJI, the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, is extremely disappointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) order released today which inappropriately treats a technology's country of origin as a litmus test for its performance, security, and reliability. This action will ground the entire DOI drone program, which relies on drones made with globally sourced components to create the federal government’s largest and most innovative civilian drone fleet. This decision makes clear that the U.S. government’s concerns about DJI drones, which make up a small portion of the DOI fleet, have little to do with security and are instead part of a politically-motivated agenda to reduce market competition and support domestically produced drone technology, regardless of its merits,” the company stated as part of its response.

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