New Arkansas law limits foreign drones

Law enforcement directed to phase out gear from China

A drone operated by a police investigator flies over the scene of a small plane crash in a residential neighborhood in Pennsylvania in this August 2019 file photo. (AP/Matt Rourke)

New legislation prohibits law enforcement agencies from purchasing small, unmanned aircraft, or drones, from a "covered foreign entity" starting in 2027.

According to Act 525 of 2023, a "covered foreign entity" is defined as an "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."

Police departments in Arkansas have four years to phase out their use of foreign drones, which is twice the life of a standard drone, depending on its size, said Rep. Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers.

DOCUMENT: Read the law to ban Chinese drones »]

However, if an agency believes the life of their drones can extend beyond four years, they can apply for a waiver through the secretary of transportation.

Chris Fink, CEO of Unmanned Vehicle Technologies LLC in Fayetteville, provides government agencies, primarily in public safety, with drones from every major manufacturer in the industry, both foreign and domestic.

"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," he said. "The alternative is they have to go without drones, which puts officers and citizens at greater risk."

If it comes down to data security, Fink said, agencies need to request a waiver to operate foreign drones and to use software that runs in Department of Justice-approved cloud computing environments, called "DroneSense."

Da-Jiang Innovations, or DJI, is known as the world's largest drone manufacturer, with 14,000 employees and valued at $10 billion. It is headquartered in Shenzhen, China.

DJI's drones account for 70% of the global civilian market, and founder Frank Wang is said to be the world's first drone billionaire, with a net worth of $3.6 billion.

DJI is the "main thrust" of what McKenzie's bill is trying to accomplish, he said.

"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."

The Department of Commerce has now placed DJI on its Entity List, meaning companies in the U.S. cannot supply DJI with any parts or components to drones because of links between the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party.

"It also stalls that ability for a fiduciary financial institution in the United States to invest in DJI," McKenzie said. "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."

In digging into what the federal government had done in "rooting out DJI," McKenzie found that in 2020 the Department of Defense placed an absolute moratorium on the use of DJI drones for any and all branches of the military and any other ancillary functions.

In 2017, the U.S. Army temporarily banned its teams from using DJI drones because of cyber-security concerns.

In 2019, the Department of the Interior said it would stop using any drones made in China or made with Chinese parts. In 2020, the Trump administration prepared an executive order to ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones, citing risk to national security.

McKenzie noted that the real problem with DJI is that their drones can "link into devices, networks and mainframes" without a necessary backstop so information can go from anywhere in Arkansas to another country.

"It's a common sense measure to protect our state agencies, to protect our local departments, and it's a step in the right direction," he explained.

"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."

At least 18 states-- Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- and the District of Columbia enacted 25 bills in 2021 addressing drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The same year, Arkansas and Texas prohibited drones from flying over certain facilities, such as airports and correctional or detention facilities.

In 2019, the Public Safety Unmanned Aircraft Survey from DroneResponders cited that 73% of public safety agencies use a DJI Mavic drone, 47% use the DJI Matrice series and 46% use the DJI Phantom series.

American drone companies like 3D Robotics and GoPro have failed at what they initially set out to do. 3D Robotics shut down after burning through $100 million in funding and changed operations to drones as a service.

GoPro's Karma drone had a number of issues, including a major recall because they were falling from the sky. GoPro laid off between 200 to 300 employees in 2018, primarily from the GoPro Karma drone team.

DJI is the most developed and has a multitude of offerings, McKenzie said, but it is still one of the more affordable options for consumers.

"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 for DJI said, "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."

The spokesperson said that "Any position or concern solely based on country of origin limits competition, innovation and the availability of technology."

"UAS like DJI's allow workers to safely engage in public safety scenarios, inspect elevated infrastructure, such as transmission lines and wind turbines from the ground, etc., and they have been used to rescue hundreds of people from peril around the world. A rash, uninformed decision that limits access to our technology because of concerns about country of origin will literally cost people their lives."

Fink said that while the state was quick to "put ink to paper" to force agencies to buy different products, "they've been silent on any funding mechanisms to help."

"Their lives and their families' lives are at stake," he said. "Still, once the signing ceremonies are done, they don't seem to care at all about the tools that public safety has available."

Fink said legislators should have devoted time to come up with ways for state agencies to get funding to help them procure new, non-Chinese equipment.

"This is all after a member of the House committee that heard the bill responded with, 'It's OK. I have AT&T,' after somebody asked about the data security of his potentially Chinese-made cellphone that was sitting next to him," he added.

The Little Rock Police Department has four DJI drones for its SWAT Team and two more from Skydio, an American drone company.

Mark Edwards, public information officer for the department, said they will use their drones as much as possible until they need to find replacements.

If the department were to choose Skydio, for example, to replace their foreign drones it would cost about $8,000. Skydio is reported as the leading U.S. drone manufacturer and world leader in autonomous flight technology.

The SWAT team has a larger BRINC Lemar drone for specialty missions.

BRINC Drones is an American technology company supplying first responders with reliable drones that can fly indoors. The department would not need to replace this drone under Act 525.

The North Little Rock Police Department has eight licensed drone pilots and five on the team. Each pilot has two drones in their patrol vehicles, an Autel Robotics Evo ll Enterprise Dual and a smaller Autel Robotics Nano.

Autel Robotics is also headquartered in Shenzhen, China, but has subsidiary bases in the U.S., Germany, Italy and Singapore.

The department would have to replace its 10 foreign drones with American-made ones in the next four years. If they choose Skydio, it would cost about $20,000.