June 24, 2024


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Connecticut Proposes Ban on Foreign-Made Drones in State Agencies

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Connecticut lawmakers mull banning foreign-made drones for state agencies

By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill

The state of Connecticut has joined a growing list of U.S. states that are considering legislation that would severely restrict or ban the use of foreign-made drones by state agencies.

Senate Bill 3, currently pending in the Connecticut state Legislature, would prohibit the purchase by state agencies of drones manufactured by a “covered foreign entity,” specifically China and the Russian federation. The legislation is largely aimed at drones made in China, chiefly those produced by DJI, the world’s leading drone manufacturer.

Although the drone restrictions are couched among other sections in the bill dealing with issues such as broadband access, Section 4 — which deals with small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) — has created the most concern, especially among first-responder groups who fear the legislation could ground their existing drone programs.

The restrictions on foreign-made drones mirror those contained in the federal American Security Drone Act, which was signed into law last December as part of the omnibus National Defense Authorization Act. Other states, including Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee have passed similar bans, specifically targeting Chinese-made drones.

SB 3 would prohibit the purchase by any public entity in the state of “any small unmanned aircraft system assembled or manufactured by a covered foreign entity” In addition it would bar the use of any state funds “to purchase, operate or repair” those sUAS.

In addition, if the legislation were to become law, it would require any public entity that currently operates a drone system covered by the ban to submit, no later than October 1 2024, a plan to discontinue use of that system and to implement that plan by October 1, 2025.

The bill contains provisions to apply for a waiver from the ban if the operator of the drone system can prove the need for retaining their foreign-made drones due to exigent circumstances, such as the need to counter another unmanned aircraft system, or for conducting a criminal investigation.

Letter from lawmakers

In a recent letter to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, the bill’s sponsor, and cosponsor Senator Martin Looney outlined their reasoning behind the proposed legislation, making it clear the bill was targeted at drone industry leader DJI.

The lawmakers cited the American Security Drone Act and other moves by the federal government aimed at DJI and other makers of Chinese-produced drones.

“This past January, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that DJI the largest Chinese drone manufacturer is actually a ‘Chinese-Military Company’ working with the People’s Liberation Army,” the senators wrote. The same company was also accused by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2020 of supporting human rights abuses against the Uighur people of Xinjiang.”

The senators also alleged that DJI products presented an inherent security risk of accessing potentially sensitive data, and turning that data over to the Chinese government. “It is the drone hardware itself that presents the security risk as the security software updates for Chinese-made drones are controlled by Chinese entities that can introduce unknown data collection and transmission capabilities without the user’s awareness.”

For its part, DJI has long maintained that it is a private company, not directly under the control of the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party and that it is not responsible for alleged human rights abuses that have been committed using its drone products. The drone manufacturer also says that it does not collect data from its users without their permission and that any data that is collected is stored on servers within the United States.

Public hearing

A public hearing held on February 29 drew about 80 written responses to the bill, with most of those expressing opposition to the proposed legislation. Many of the opponents represented public service agencies, such as police and fire departments, that feared the bill would cripple their successful drone programs.

“This bill will hinder public safety investigations, put officers, civilians and suspects at risk, slow response time for life-saving care and hinder the ability to locate fleeing suspects from scenes, ultimately greatly impacting our ability to do our jobs and keep our communities safe,” wrote Sergeant Kyle Jonson of the city of Torrington Department of Public Services.

Christopher Vanghele, chief of police for the town of Plainville, said if the proposed legislation becomes law, “It will place officers in unnecessary, life-imperiling danger.”

Several respondents testified that their respective agencies deployed Chinese-made drones because they were less expensive and had greater functionality than their non-Chinese counterparts. “Our department uses Chinese-made drones or drones with parts made in China because they are the best and widely available,” Vanghele wrote.

“Chinese-made drones far exceed the capabilities and technical specification of U.S.-built drones,” wrote Donald Janelle, deputy emergency manager for the town of Manchester and co-chair of the Connecticut Municipal UAV Task Force. “The U.S. drones that have claimed similar capabilities cost as much as twice as that of the Chinese counterparts and don’t perform as well.”

The bill’s opponents also countered the argument that the legislation was necessary to prevent data collected by Chinese-made drones from being sent to China and turned over to the Chinese Communist Party.

“Our drones are flown and updated with external monitors that are not connected to any computers.” Flight data collected is retained within the external monitor used for flying,” Janelle testified.

“We understand that this bill is intended to address cybersecurity concerns,” Vanghele wrote. “Our drones do not have cellphone capability and other than useless data about its flight pattern that is stored in the cloud and there is no other viable information that can be extracted from our drone flights.”

Several respondents testified in favor of the bill.  Michael Robbins, chief advocacy officer of the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) suggested several modifications to the bill that would make it less onerous to the state’s public safety agencies that currently fly the soon-to-be-banned drones.

Robbins suggested that rather than calling for the shutdown of all covered drone operations by October 2025, the cutoff date should be extended to at least October 2027, giving the agencies more time to make the transition to non-banned drones. He also called for the creation of a grant program for police agencies and firefighters to provide funds for the replacement of drones.

“With an increase transition period and the passage of the associated grant program bill, Section 4 of SB 3 becomes a rational, tailored measure that protects national security and recognizes the needs of the public safety community,” he wrote.

An anonymous respondent, identified only as “Pilot in Command,” testified that the use of Chinese-made drone technology should have been banned in the U.S. five years ago. “Chinese drones utilize a proprietary algorithm for data collection that only the Chinese can decrypt,” he or she wrote. “Wake up America!”

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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 McNabbMiriam McNabb

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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Tags: chinese dronesConnecticut drone legislationcybersecurity in dronesDJI drone controversyDrone Policydrone security concernsforeign drone banPublic Safety DronesRussian dronesstate agency drone use