Make no mistake, the drone world is not immune to the political stand-off between China and the United States. At the heart of this is DJI. As the top consumer drone manufacturer on the globe, data security is the name of the game here, with fears that your DJI drone can be used by China to spy on you.
There may have been some reported security flaws in older versions of DJI software, but are they really a threat to national security? They are working very hard not to be.
Before we dive into some facts, let’s start with an overall opinion. We’ve yet to find any tangible proof that DJI drones have been compromised in any way. One of their latest machines, the Mavic 2 Enterprise, even comes with data and signal encryption, aimed at keeping your location and data safe.
Further, DJI just officially announced a range of new drones as well, called Government Edition, which has been in the works for a few years now. These are the same drones we already know, just with hardware and software adjustments to keep data safe and personal. In their own words: “Government Edition has been vetted by the U.S. Department of the Interior and is now available for other government agencies to purchase.”
Aside from fear mongers that target all Chinese firms simply because they are Chinese, there is truth that some of your data may, in-fact, be transmitted to DJI servers in China. When you purchase a new DJI drone, you are required to create a user account in their systems. They collect minimal info to setup an account.
If you live in the U.S., DJI says your account information remains on servers that are also based in the U.S.
Whether you create an account with a burner email address for anonymity, or you choose to put all your info and attach a credit card to your account, is up to you.
When you go fly your favorite drone, your flight logs are uploaded to the servers. This includes very accurate GPS information on where your drone and your controller are at. You may then choose to use DJI’s cloud services for photos, which would automatically upload your images as well.
A combination of your name, your location and a few images of you and your surroundings can certainly be a vulnerability if put in the wrong hands.
DJI has made tools to prevent flight data and image uploads from happening, but these are the main reasons that many U.S. government agencies had sworn off of DJI drones in the last few years. To be clear, we know of no legible claims of DJI dishing over details to the Chinese government, but we certainly have no way to stop them if that is what they had wanted to do.
DJI has introduced a few machines that focus on data security. These are generally commercial and professional class machines like the Mavic 2 Enterprise, but they use hardware and connection encryption to ensure your data remains your data.
The introduction of a full line of Government Edition drones takes this to the next level. Well, looking at it more closely, this platform basically disables all network connectivity, so no matter what, your data cannot be transmitted anywhere.
For us regular users, we always have the option to use alternatives to the DJI GO 4 app. After all, it is the DJI GO 4 app that is submitting the flight logs, not the drone itself. There are also controls within DJI’s app to limit what data is collected and to delete it after the fact.
When we really look at it, you are able to configure the app to not send any data to the servers, and you can choose to fly DJI drones in airplane mode. Flight logs and images remain on the drone and connected phone until they are removed from the devices. Should you remove the data before you connect your phone to the internet, nothing can be transmitted at all.
Please note that most of these cloud services are turned on by default, but you have control.
The next step
The political situation between the U.S. and China goes deeper than just some privacy concerns, there are some major tariffs in the works. DJI drones will be included in this, with the end result being higher prices for consumers. For a better idea what the tariffs are all about, check out David Imel’s notes over on Android Authority. He talks about phones, mostly, but the same concepts apply. We’re looking at as much as a 25 percent price increase as soon as July 2nd, 2019.
With these looming costs, if for no other reason, the rumor is that DJI is contemplating a manufacturing plant in California. They are already one of the largest employers of Americans in the drone industry, primarily for business and advocacy roles.
We have been fans of DJI’s efforts to help shape the landscape of drones in this country. We meet with Brendan Shulman a few times per year to chat about drone laws and regulations, but he works full time to both help DJI navigate U.S. law as well as participate in groups organized by the FAA to help identify ways to safely integrate drones into the airspace.
DJI was one of the first to present pilots with a safety quiz in the drone app, and they recently announced that drones from 2020 onward will have ADS-B receivers built in. Putting safety on a pilot’s radar is a good thing, and ADS-B is perhaps the best tool around for airspace awareness.
Should you avoid DJI drones?
We don’t think you should avoid DJI drones. Bottom line, if you choose to not trust DJI with your personal and location data, you can still fly their drones, and those machines are still some of the best on the market.
You are also welcome to join their Bug Bounty Program to take a deep dive into their code, if that’s your thing.