By now, most people have heard of Shenzhen DJI Sciences and Technologies Ltd., a company based in the People’s Republic of China. heard. It’s not hard to walk into any electronics store across the country and find DJI drones prominently displayed. According to a white paper from the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International, PRC drones dominate more than 90% of the hobby drone market in the United States, 70% of the industrial drone market and over 80% of the first responder market.

DJI rightly gets the lion’s share of attention from Washington’s national security observers. In December 2020, DJI was added to the US list of companies amid concerns about its platforms being used for foreign espionage, and Congress continues to legislate against the company, albeit with mixed results.

Now another Chinese drone manufacturer is coming to the fore: Autel Robotics. As of December 2021, Autel’s US market share was 15% and, like DJI, the company receives government funding from the People’s Republic of China and preferential tax rates.

Autel has become the drone of choice for several American law enforcement agencies. The company even sells drones to U.S. federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture. And until recently, the United States Capitol Police was preparing to use Autel drones.


There is currently no federal legal hurdle preventing law enforcement agencies from purchasing Autel drones. And only seven states have banned Chinese-made drones. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Drones from the People’s Republic of China pose an unacceptable risk to national security because all Chinese companies are legally required to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party government’s foreign espionage efforts. Drones are now mapping America’s critical infrastructure and countless other important features, locations and facilities. Drones provide detailed images and other technical data that, no matter how good your space-based satellite (or “weather balloon”) may be, you cannot capture any other way.

Some PRC drones have weak flight systems and unsecured communication links between the drone and the operator, allowing data such as telemetry and live video feeds to be intercepted if not properly encrypted. Some drones in the People’s Republic of China are also vulnerable to malware infections and cyberattacks that could be used for distributed denial-of-service attacks.

The real challenge for Washington in the face of technological threats from the People’s Republic of China remains an approach that prefers to target the leading company in the market rather than adopting a sector-based approach. This narrow strategy ensures that we do not comprehensively address the technological threats posed by the People’s Republic of China. This dilemma applies to several industries where a Chinese company has dominated: CATL with electric batteries, the TikTok app and Huawei with 5G. If Washington doesn’t act now, we risk Autel becoming a new giant in the People’s Republic of China.

In response, the Biden administration should issue an executive order to promote and protect American competitiveness in the drone market.

First, the administration should order the ban on all PRC-made drones used by federal agencies and prohibit organizations from using federal funds and grants to purchase adversary drone technology. An official policy would mean a public declaration of the drone threat in the PRC to the public and the drone user community.

Second, the White House should also direct the Departments of Commerce and Defense to conduct investigations into Autel and all PRC-made drone companies and their supply chains. These investigations were intended to assess national security threats and ties to the PRC military and government, and to add additional PRC drone companies, including Autel, to the entity list. Additionally, the Defense Department’s listing of DJI as part of its 1260H list of Chinese military companies should be expanded to other PRC drone companies, including Autel. The Department of Homeland Security must also issue an updated threat alert and restrict the use of drones from the People’s Republic of China in key sectors, including critical infrastructure and law enforcement.

Third, Congress should further expand existing legal restrictions on Defense Department contractors using PRC drones and support a broader federal ban on PRC drones. Additionally, Congress should investigate the intensive lobbying practices of PRC drone companies at the federal, state, and local levels.

Finally, the U.S. government must also work closely with international partners and allies to share information about security risks associated with Autel, DJI, and other drone companies in the PRC. As with the 5G fight, an effective strategy to counter the PRC must include an international diplomatic and educational component.

Policymakers in Washington should not be lulled into believing that the Chinese drone threat has been addressed. In fact, it’s getting worse as there are more companies and every drone company in the PRC expands its market presence and market share. We understand that the Administration and Congressional agenda we have laid out to address this challenge is ambitious, but this is exactly what is needed to secure America’s critical infrastructure and the American people.

Eric Sayers is a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, where he focuses on defense policy and strategy in the Asia-Pacific region and U.S.-China technology policy. Klon Kitchen is a non-resident senior fellow at AEI, where he focuses on the intersection of national security, defense technologies and innovation.

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