Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt formally grounded the department’s drones from non-emergency operations in a Jan. 29 order amid cybersecurity concerns relating to Chinese-made drones in its fleet.

The formal measure “affirms” an Interior Department announcement in late October that it was temporarily halting non-emergency drone operations in late October last year. That review is ongoing.

“Drones for non-emergency operations will remain grounded while the Interior Department reviews the possibility of potential threats and ensures a secure, reliable and consistent drone policy that advances our mission while keeping America safe,” a Department of Interior spokesperson said in a statement.

While the order doesn’t directly specify Chinese-made drones, a senior Interior official confirmed on a call with reporters that the order was directed at Chinese drones like DJI.

“There is an emphasis on Chinese drones without question because most of our drones, if not all of them, are either Chinese directly made or have components,” a senior Interior official said. “It does not specifically mention Chinese [drones] because we wanted to leave it open in case there are additional foreign sources that may be issues.”

In response to the decision from Interior, DJI released a statement dismissing the decision by Interior.

“We are opposed to the politically motivated country of origin restrictions masquerading as cybersecurity concerns and call for policymakers and industry stakeholders to create clear standards that will give commercial and government drone operators the assurance they need to confidently evaluate drone technology on the merits of performance, security and reliability, no matter where it is made,” the DJI statement said.

One problem the department faces is a lack of American-made drones on the market to counter DJI offerings. The senior Interior official on the call told reporters that the department was working with the intelligence community on developing a fleet of U.S.-made drones, but declined to elaborate on which agencies. The official said the capability would be available “not necessarily in the immediate future, but soon."

Since the fleet was informally grounded in October, Interior has flown its drones 12 times — eight by the Bureau of Land Management to combat fires and four from the U.S. Geological Survey for flood-related activity, the official said.

Back in December, a Navy memo documenting the service’s concerns about risks in DJI products was published by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. In that memo, dated May 24, 2017, Navy officials warned of a vulnerability in the communication between DJI products and ground stations that would allow adversaries to access video and metadata from the drone, or even take control of the drone.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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