Unique Interview: DJI Officers Defend Information Safety Insurance policies Amid Chinese language Drone Ban Considerations

Alexander Glinz, CC BY-SA 3.0 

DJI official defends company’s data security policies

By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill

(The following story is part of an ongoing series on the impact of attempts by the U.S. federal government and some states to limit or ban the use of drones produced by Chinese companies.  In an interview, Adam Welsh, DJI’s head of Global Policy, discusses the legislation and the steps DJI has taken to ensure that data collected by its products remains secure. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

DroneLife: There’s been a lot of talk in the U.S. about banning drones from China and a lot of interest in whether or not these drones present any kind of security risk. Obviously, DJI has said that’s not the case. Can you walk me through what steps you’ve taken to ensure that the data that’s collected by drones in the U.S. doesn’t wind up somewhere else?

Welsh: Maybe first is some background. We were founded in about 2006, and we were the first to launch a consumer off-the-shelf drone. So, the entire product, right? Airframe, gimbal to stabilize the camera and a camera system.

What had happened was a number of U. S. soldiers were buying these products off the shelf. We weren’t selling directly to the military, but they were getting used in military applications.

The Pentagon put out a memo that specifically named DJI and said this practice has to cease and desist. We complained and they changed the memo to say the soldiers should not buy consumer off-the-shelf drone products and take into theater. But the reputational damage has kind of been set at that point.

And so, we started to do a lot on data security. One of the first things we did was we made sure that we only take data if you opt in to share it.

On a consumer product, you’ve got the option to do both flight logs and videos. Videos would go to SkyPixel, which is basically our social media platform. We don’t take it automatically; you have to opt in to do that.

On our enterprise products, we don’t offer SkyPixel. So, the only thing you can do is opt in to share your flight logs. And again, you have to opt in to do it.

The second thing we put in place is: if you do decide to share that data with us it’s all hosted on servers in the United States. So, if you’re flying outside of China, anywhere in the world outside China, your data is hosted in the United States.

The third thing that we did was we created something called local data mode. It basically allows you to fly a DJI drone with no connection to the internet. So, it’s like having an air-gapped computer that never connects to the internet or a Wi Fi system.

If you’re flying a very sensitive mission, you can fly in local data mode. Since then, we’ve actually expanded local data mode to mean that you can do offline firmware updates. So, you can take the firmware and load it up to a computer.

You could buy a DJI drone, unbox it, do one firmware update, go into local data mode, and never come out of local data mode.

DroneLife: Why do you think there is still this notion that DJI drones are security risks? Why do you think this has kept on and it’s led to all this legislation?

Welsh: DJI was a first mover, and as a first mover we became very big very fast. We’re a big percentage of the market, and our domestic competitors in the U.S. struggle to compete with us on quality and price. And so, they lobby very hard to have us banned at the federal and the state level. This isn’t something that comes out of nowhere.

And then you add in the really toxic relationship between China and the US and it’s just a very receptive audience, right? I mean, there’s almost no element of technology you can look at right now, if it has a Chinese angle to it that people are questioning it.

DroneLife: You mentioned about your competitors having lobbyists. DJI also has its own lobbyists. How would you compare your lobbying efforts to these American drone companies?

Welsh: I wish we had the internal resources that our competitors had. The problem is that we face quite a broad array of competitors. If you add up all their headcount, they have far more people out there advocating. We have a very small team in Washington, D.C.

And our lobbying expenditure, if you compared it to any other company in the technology sector, is way below par. So, we’re not spending anywhere near enough, frankly, but we’re doing our best.

DroneLife: Keeping on the lobbying piece for just another minute, do you lobby on the state level?

Welsh: We have begun to do this as well. The whole strategy behind our lobbying is really just to respond and inject facts into the storyline.

There’s a lot of misinformation that’s spread about DJI by our competitors and others. And so, our lobbyists literally just go in and share all their reports, our cyber data security and other information, and just to try and put some facts on the table.

We’ve been doing that federally for several years, and since we’ve seen the rise of state efforts to ban our products, we’ve been starting to do this at a state level as well.

I would like to maybe give real kudos to our partners. We have a number of really enthusiastic end-users. A lot of them are asking us to do more and more to try and protect our place in the market.  And so, we have a number of partners that we’ve brought together and formed the Drone Advocacy Alliance.

It’s basically a platform that brings together software companies that write software for the drone industry, training organizations, drone service providers, a whole host of others, to try and actually make their voice heard.

DroneLife: DJI had launched a series of products that were supposed to be designed specifically for U.S. security use, and apparently that didn’t go over too big. Can you explain what happened with that?

Welsh: When these issues first arose, we created something that we call a Government Edition. It was meant to be for secure users, government agencies that wanted a higher level of security. This was four years ago now.

The Department of Interior tested it. They had NASA and others come in. It was approved for use.

Not many people actually bought the product … because it was a little bit more expensive. It added certain layers of security; it allowed you to do all offline firmware updates, to keep the product offline permanently.

We realized, ‘Look, people aren’t going to pay a premium for this,’ so we should just make this standard across all of our enterprise products. And so now, if you buy a current enterprise drone, it has the features that you had on the Government Edition.

DroneLife. It’s been suggested that DJI might be able to get around some of these restrictions by manufacturing drones in the U.S. Can you talk about why you’re not doing that?

Welsh: Actually, we were very keen on doing this and explored it quite publicly, four to five years ago.  Honestly, the costs associated are part of it, but also, we didn’t really think we were going to get the full benefit.

The nature of the attempts to ban Chinese drones are that if you look at a lot of the efforts, it’s ‘no Chinese parts, no Chinese software.’ So, we would have to really produce a much more expensive drone.

Frankly, if you use an iPhone, it’s using Chinese parts, and it’s manufactured in China. There’s a lot of sensitive traffic that goes over people’s iPhones. So, I think that’s a real problem with this effort. We would be very interested in exploring it again, if there was a reasonable dialogue.

Read previous articles in this series: 

Read more background information here:

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.



Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.


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