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DJI to the rescue? US police want China drones despite Washington clampdown

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   6 mins read

Lawmakers are taking aim at devices used by many first responders.

The first drone that Kentucky’s Hardin County sheriffs used was a DJI Matrice 300. A local agriculture cooperative donated the Chinese-made device in 2021 to help officers track down teenagers who destroyed crops on a farm covering hundreds of acres.

While officers on foot were always just a few steps behind, the drone was able to find and capture images of the culprits in minutes.

Sergeant Travis Cook told Nikkei Asia that drones quickly became an indispensable tool for the sheriff’s department, which later established a fleet of five DJI craft. They have been used to scout for potentially poisonous materials in a derailed train and even saved officers’ lives during a hostage situation, he said.

The irony is that, while police officers, firefighters and rescue workers across the country embrace Chinese drones, Washington is warning that the technology poses a material risk to the US. This has opened up a heated debate over local safety versus national security, complicating Washington’s efforts to establish a hawkish yet pragmatic China policy.

Lawmakers in Washington introduced the Countering CCP Drones Act in March and the Drones for First Responders (DFR) Act in May to ban DJI and hike tariffs on Chinese drones in general. Revenue from those tariffs would be used to fund purchases of American drones for public safety departments.

The US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee has included the Countering CCP Drones Act in its draft of the 2025 financial year National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a significant defense policy bill. The NDAA is being reviewed by the committee this week and is expected to advance to the House floor.

The Countering CCP Act could be passed swiftly if “the legislation is included in a larger bipartisan bill like defense appropriations,” said Jack Zhang, assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Kansas, similar to how the ban on TikTok was included in the foreign aid bill in April.

DJI denied allegations that the Chinese government has backdoor access to its data or the company is unfairly subsidized.

“The DFR Act’s proposal to increase taxes and eventually ban drones manufactured in China is xenophobia wrapped inside a national security cover,” the company said in a statement.

Public safety agencies are already barred from using federal grants to buy Chinese drones, but a number of them, including in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Connecticut, have made purchases using their own budgets. Many say they would buy them even with higher tariffs.

Luis Figueiredo, a detective with the Elizabeth Police Department in New Jersey, said new tariffs would be “bad news” for users.

“DJI is not going to discount the tariff off, [so] the customer is going to pay more money for a DJI drone,” said Figueiredo, who flies five or six drones a day. “In the end, who’s really funding that? It’s going to be public safety.”

And price—or more accurately what you get for that price—is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle.

Several officers and drone dealers told Nikkei Asia that US drones cost three to four times more than Chinese models without offering even the same level of technology.

“Would you rather drive a Cadillac Escalade that has all the comforts and tools you need to make your job a lot easier? Or would you rather pay more money and drive a Ford Escort that has no options at all?” said Cook, the Kentucky sergeant. “It is what it is.”

American drone makers, however, strongly support these bills.

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which represents US drone manufacturers, acknowledges the technological gap but blames it on DJI’s dominance of the US market and Chinese government subsidies.

“It’s hard for a lot of drone manufacturers to raise capital to scale their production [because] the demand signal from so many users is still defaulting to the cheap Chinese drones,” said Michael Robbins, president and CEO of AUVSI. “You’ve got a competitor in the marketplace that is heavily subsidized, it’s very hard to compete with that, particularly on cost factors.”

According to AUVSI, Chinese drones control 92% of the first responder market in the US.

Would you rather drive a Cadillac Escalade that has all the comforts and tools you need …? Or would you rather pay more money and drive a Ford Escort?

AUVSI has urged Congress to establish an incentive program modeled on the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) Act for the semiconductor industry to boost local drone production.

“When the US government identifies the technology that is critical to US national economic security and puts policies in place to put some federal funding, that is a signal to private capital that they too, should invest,” Robbins told Nikkei Asia. “And they often invest at a rate significantly higher than the federal government investment.”

DJI has denied it has an unfair advantage. “Despite claims of subsidization from our critics, in reality, DJI is able to offer its products in more than 100 countries at competitive prices because we manufacture at scale,” it said in its statement.

DJI did not disclose how much revenue it generates in the US, but said the country is still one of its largest markets outside China.

Seattle-based Brinc, the second largest drone manufacturer from the US, said labor costs, scale of production, and the cost of custom chipsets were the main roadblocks to lower prices for US players.

“[Drones] are generally built by hand in the States, whereas in China, they’re built in very automated ways,” said Blake Resnick, founder and CEO of Brinc.

As a former intern at DJI, Resnick said the Chinese drone giant has the money to invest in developing its own chip for custom radios, which allows video encoding, encryption, transmission, and other functions to perform well. Brinc, he said, had to buy more expensive, off-the-shelf chips.

Brinc has 110 staff and has raised USD 82 million in funding. The company has sold drone programs at prices ranging from five figures to millions of dollars, according to Resnick.

But while companies fret about cost, the federal government’s focus is more on security, according to Zhang at the University of Kansas.

“China-related bills are very much evaluated from a national security lens first and that reduces the space to debate the economic trade-offs that these bills entail,” he said.

“There’s a broad bipartisan consensus on the pressing need to address perceived national security threats from China, so the margins of victory tend to be large if it is put up for a vote,” he added. “Where first responders and other interest groups that oppose the bill would be most effective is at this stage now,” before the bill hits the House floor.

A flashpoint in the debate—and a potential sign of things to come—came when Florida banned its public safety agencies from using Chinese drones last year, drawing criticism from first responders and some lawmakers.

“I’m not going to let one officer risk his or her life because somebody thinks that these things talk to China,” Florida senator and former K-9 officer Tom Wright said during a Senate committee hearing last year before the ban took effect. “I cannot imagine what China would really want to see when we pull over a DUI (driving under the influence), when we stop a speeding car, when we arrest somebody for an outstanding warrant.”

Several first responders testified at the hearing about safety concerns regarding the alternative drones approved by the Florida government, including one incident in which a replacement drone caught fire in a deputy’s patrol vehicle.

Cook also said he is skeptical about the risks that Congress has raised over Chinese drones.

“Even if they were trying to do something like that, there’s nothing the drone sees that you and I can’t see with Google Earth,” he added. “That argument didn’t have a lot of weight with me.”

Matt Sloane, founder and CEO of drone dealer Skyfire in Atlanta, Georgia, is another critic of Florida’s approach.

“We have dozens of clients in Florida. I’ve seen what happens when you do outright bans and it’s very detrimental to public safety agencies and to the people they support,” Sloane said. “We’ve seen a lot of agencies who had burgeoning drone programs that they can’t use [anymore]. … A lot of agencies in Florida don’t have the budget to replace their Chinese aircrafts.”

The state has proposed reimbursing local law enforcement departments for grounding Chinese drones, but the program is on hold pending approval. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re all about supporting American products and American made manufacturing, but the hard part is the technology is just not at that level yet,” said Michael Shove, assistant chief of the Guilford Fire Department in Connecticut. “Price points are important too. … I think even with tariffs, [Chinese drones] will still be cheaper and higher quality.”

Connecticut tried to introduce a similar ban on Chinese drones as Florida, but the state legislature didn’t pass it.

But for Sloane, the drone dealer in Atlanta, the trend is only going one way. “The reality is that more restrictions are coming.”

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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