A new law passed by the state of Arkansas will ban the use of foreign-made aerial drones for use by law enforcement agencies due to national security concerns.
“It’s a commonsense measure to protect our state agencies, to protect our local departments, and it’s a step in the right direction,” explained bill sponsor Representative Brit McKenzie.
Act 525, which is set to take effect in 2027, bans the use of unmanned aerial drones (UAV) made by “covered foreign entities” — such as Russia or China — by law enforcement to protect data security and national security interests.
The term “covered foreign entities” is defined in the measure as relating to “individual, foreign government or a party other than an individual or foreign government on the consolidated screening list or entity list as designated by the United States Secretary of Commerce; Domiciled in the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation; under the influence or control by the government of the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation.”
Representative McKenzie said that for the past four years, agencies in the state have relied on Chinese-manufactured drones, which have twice the life of standard drones.
According to the legislation, officials must request a waiver to operate foreign drones, and must use software compatible with the Department of Justice-approved cloud computing environment called DroneSense.
Agencies may apply to the Secretary of Transportation for a waiver if the drone’s life extends beyond its standard four years.
Drone industry experts such as Chris Fink, CEO of Unmanned Vehicle Technologies LLC, said agencies are going to have to transition away from Chinese equipment or else stop using drones.
“If a law enforcement agency in the state simply cannot afford to purchase non-Chinese equipment, they absolutely need the ability to get a waiver,” Fink said. “The alternative is they have to go without drones, which puts officers and citizens at greater risk.”
Fink has provided government agencies with drones from both foreign and domestic manufacturers.
The legislation comes amid global tensions between China and the U.S.
Shenzhen-based Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), the world’s largest drone manufacturer, accounts for 70% of the drone market for civilians.
The company has 14,000 employees and is valued at $10 billion.
Its founder, Frank Wang, is considered the world’s first drone billionaire, and has an estimated net worth of $3.6 billion.
Representative McKenzie said there are inherent national security risks involved in using the company’s products.
“It’s an extraordinarily bad actor,” he said. “It’s a Chinese military company. We can call it 16 things under the sun, [but] that’s really what it is.”
According to McKenzie, drones can “link into devices, networks and mainframes” with a back door so information from Arkansas can fall into the wrong hands.
“That’s the great part about the bill. It’s not mandating American-made purchases, it’s just saying that companies — any drones manufactured similar to China or Russia — you cannot have future [drones]. It’s not a protectionist bill. It’s a safety bill,” McKenzie stated.
The Department of Commerce recently placed DJI on its entity list, which means that U.S. is forbidden to supply DJI with any parts (such as microchips) to make drones due to the company’s ties to the People’s Republic of China.
McKenzie said the bill will also ensure that investment companies cease to invest in the Chinese company.
“It also stalls that ability for a fiduciary financial institution in the United States to invest in DJI,” the representative continued. “In terms of what our federal government says about not only military companies that are outside of the United States, but general companies, they have done everything they can to create distance.”
DJI has been getting the cold shoulder from government agencies in recent years, despite 73% of public safety agencies using the company’s Mavic drone.
In 2020, the Department of Defense placed a moratorium on the use of DJI drones by the U.S. military.
Additionally, in 2019, the Department of the Interior announced that it would stop using drones made in China or made with Chinese parts.
The Trump administration, likewise, prepared an executive order in 2020 to ban all federal departments from buying using foreign-made drones due to national security risks.
McKenzie noted that DJI has been the most successful drone manufacturer due to their low prices.
“Why are they still so cheap? And I have to think that that’s by design or intention so that agencies or groups of people … [can] buy them. I have no doubt to their efficacy and doubt to their user-friendliness, but at the end of the day we have to put state and national security first.”
A spokesperson from the company released a statement about the new legislation.
“A vast number of government agencies in the United States continue to rely on and use DJI drones in their daily work. This includes a multitude of law enforcement partners and first responders who know they can trust our products, because they are safe and secure. Our cybersecurity/privacy practices have been substantiated by multiple independent third parties in the United States and elsewhere since 2017.”
Fink said it is not clear whether the state will provide funding for agencies to buy non-Chinese drones.
Currently, the Little Rock Police Department uses four DJI drones for its SWAT Team and two from Skydio, an American drone company.
The department stated that they will continue to use the DJI drones until the law takes effect.