June 12, 2024 | Insight

5 Things to Know About Chinese Drone Company DJI

June 12, 2024 | Insight

5 Things to Know About Chinese Drone Company DJI

Chinese drone manufacturer Shenzhen DJI Innovation Technology Company Limited (known simply as DJI) controls over 70 percent of the global drone market, perfectly illustrating the fusion of China’s economic ambitions with its strategic military buildup. DJI’s deep ties with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as its role in aiding and abetting human rights abuses, have attracted significant policymaker scrutiny in the form of new regulations and legislation. Measures like the Countering CCP Drones Act are gaining traction to safeguard American critical infrastructure and uphold ethical standards, ensuring that critical cutting-edge technologies remain tools for advancement and not instruments of oppression.

1. DJI Drones Directly Enable Mass Surveillance and Genocide

As a principal provider of surveillance technology to the Chinese government, DJI has customized its drones to assist Chinese authorities in the systematic monitoring and persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, which many governments, including the United States, have declared to be “crimes against humanity and genocide.” Notably, in 2017, DJI partnered with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, which the U.S. Department of the Treasury later sanctioned, to provide intelligence personnel with drones to conduct oppressive surveillance operations. These include monitoring large public gatherings, aiding in the enforcement of compulsory biometric data collection, and monitoring ethnic minorities forcibly interned at labor and so-called “re-education camps.” All told, between 2019 and 2022, Xinjiang authorities spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on DJI drones to support these and other human rights violations.

Such pervasive surveillance exemplifies both DJI’s complicity in human rights violations and the grave implications of technology being wielded as a tool for systemic oppression. A chilling example of DJI’s involvement occurred in 2019 when its drones captured footage of hundreds of blindfolded and shackled Uyghur men being forcibly detained by Chinese police, illustrating the dire consequences of such surveillance capabilities. Meanwhile, Beijing has also used DJI drones to help suppress large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, where Chinese authorities also used facial recognition technology to identify and track protestors and organizers. These and other instances demonstrate DJI’s involvement in facilitating state-sanctioned persecution and repression.

2. Proposed U.S. Restrictions on DJI Drones Echo International Measures

The United States is hardly alone in imposing restrictions on DJI, reflecting a growing international consensus about the cybersecurity risks posed by DJI’s Chinese government links. In February 2023, the U.K. Home Office established a task force to scrutinize police force contracts with Chinese drone companies. In May 2023, the Australian Defense Force suspended the use of all DJI products pending a cyber-security and counterintelligence review. Earlier, in 2021, India imposed restrictions on several Chinese tech firms, including DJI, citing data security concerns. Japan also conducted comprehensive security reviews of Chinese drones in 2020, leading to several local governments discontinuing their use in sensitive public operations.

These measures reinforce moves made by the U.S. government since at least 2017, when the U.S. Army banned DJI drones because of the “cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products.” In 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department added DJI to its Entity List, which restricts U.S. companies from exporting or transferring specific technologies to DJI without a license, and the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned DJI for “actively supporting the biometric surveillance and tracking” of ethnic Chinese minorities. Later, in 2022, the U.S. Defense Department added DJI to its list of companies that are part of China’s military industry sector. This January, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned that Chinese-made drones pose a “significant risk” to U.S. critical infrastructure, including fears they could be used by China to spy on American pipelines, railways, power generation facilities, waterways, and other critical infrastructure.

3. Like TikTok and Huawei, DJI is Beholden to the Chinese Communist Party

DJI is deeply embedded within the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authoritarian apparatus, subject to rigorous party-state oversight. This includes mandatory compliance with Chinese laws, such as the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2021 Data Security Law. These and other statutes require DJI to share consumer and other data with Chinese intelligence authorities as well as mandating that DJI align its business operations with Beijing’s geostrategic goals, eliminating any pretense of corporate independence. Similarly, the presence of CCP cells within DJI’s corporate structure ensures adherence to these directives and grants the CCP significant leverage over corporate decision-making.

Additionally, DJI’s receipt of funding from state-run entities, such as China Chengtong Holdings Group — which expressly aligns itself with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ — further cements its role as a party-state-favored enterprise. Such linkages extend to DJI’s involvement in China’s military-civil fusion strategy, turning its sophisticated drones into tools not just for commercial use but also for enhancing China’s military capabilities in the areas of intelligence collection, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). For those reasons, the extensive data collected by DJI’s drones on U.S. soil — ranging from detailed imagery to sensitive communications — poses a profound national security risk, potentially providing the CCP with invaluable intelligence on critical American infrastructure, which could be exploited for strategic gains or sabotage.

4. DJI Exports to Other Autocracies Strengthen Repressive Regimes

DJI drones bolster the capabilities of other authoritarian regimes, including Iran, Syria, and Belarus, to suppress democracy activists. DJI drones can be equipped with advanced features, such as high-resolution audio/visual recording technology, powerful zoom capabilities, thermal imaging, and sophisticated sensors. These capabilities far surpass what other drone companies offer. Moreover, built-in wireless networks in DJI drones could enable repressive governments to establish and exploit extensive interconnected drone networks across their territories. Such capabilities enable authoritarian regimes to establish dense aerial surveillance networks that can be leveraged to stifle dissent and maintain stringent control.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Russia-Ukraine war, where DJI drones have been instrumental in enhancing Russia’s military operations. DJI drones significantly improve the precision and efficacy of Russian artillery, reportedly increasing lethality by five- to tenfold. DJI technology also provides critical ISR capabilities for guided Russian missile strikes against Ukrainian military targets, and DJI drones have been used by Russian military units to drop grenades and other small-sized munitions near the front line. Thus, DJI drones not only complement traditional wartime strategies but also elevate the threat level by enabling more sustained and hazardous engagements, worsening Russia’s already devastating assaults on Ukrainian sovereignty.

5. Allied and American Drone Alternatives Already Exist

Despite DJI’s dominance in the global drone market, there are credible and high-quality competitors that do not pose the same national security, economic, and ethical concerns. The United States, along with countries like Japan, South Korea, and France, are home to robust drone industries with the potential to scale up production in the coming years. In the United States, Skydio stands out as a leader in drone technology, particularly noted for its autonomous features such as collision avoidance. Skydio’s drones are utilized across more than 2,000 businesses and governmental entities. Another U.S. contender, California-based Vantage Robotics, excels in producing drones for special operations, which are equipped with American-made ISR capabilities, a powerful 48x zoom thermal camera, and enhanced security features, serving multiple U.S. military branches.

Internationally, French manufacturer Parrot stands out with advanced drones featuring 4G connectivity, obstacle sensors, and AI integration. Its Pix4D software is particularly innovative, enabling the rapid creation of detailed 3D maps from drone imagery, crucial for managing disaster responses and coordinating search and rescue missions. Similarly, Japanese companies — such as Terra Drone, Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory, and Sensyn Robotics — and South Korean firms — including Doosan Mobility Innovation, Giant Drone, and Hojung Solutions — present valuable opportunities for the United States and its partners to develop networks of trusted allied suppliers, enhancing global security collaborations and reducing dependency on adversarial powers.

Issues:

China Cyber U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy