Florida’s ban of Chinese drones leaves local fire, police scrambling to rebuild fleets

‘There is a lot of frustration’

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. – Florida has banned state and local government entities from using Chinese drones, grounding dozens of police and fire drones in South Florida and leaving agencies scrambling to find hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace them from the state’s new “approved” list.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on drones from a “foreign country of concern” includes China. The ban took effect Wednesday.

DeSantis and other state government officials are concerned that China could access DJI drone footage or data in order to spy on Americans.

But China is the home country of drone juggernaut DJI, which has a 90-95% global market share in the small drone category, Christopher Todd, the founder and president of Airborne Response, said.

Todd trains first responders on how to use drones.

“I can tell you with certainty based on our research more than 92% of Florida agencies have DJI drones in their fleet,” Todd said.

That means hundreds of public safety drones across the state have been grounded. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has grounded 63 drones, purchased at a cost of $300,000, while Miami-Dade police and fire rescue have had to ground 41 drones, which cost more than $200,000.

Todd’s company is a “Miami-based aerial intelligence services provider that operates drones on behalf of clients such as FPL, Motorola Solutions and Citizens Insurance of Florida.”

Because Citizens is a state-owned company, Todd said for him, the rule is “directly impacting” his ability to service Citizens and its customers.

He said it’s creating headaches for public safety agencies too.

“There is a lot of frustration; folks have spent a lot of time and work building out these programs with DJI technology and now they are having to restart from square one,” Todd said. “Part of the problem we are seeing here is that this is an unfunded mandate where public safety agencies are being asked to go out and restart and rebuild their drone fleets based on the new rules and the new legislation without any funding associated with it.”

A Miami-Dade police spokesperson said “the county has allocated funds to replace downed drones” and that the agency “will attempt to obtain federal and state grants to expand the fleet in the future.”

Todd said questions about DJI’s connections to the Chinese Communist Party and whether it would act maliciously remain unresolved.

“What we do know is the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party, has the right to ask any Chinese company to release their data and any of their assets, so if they wanted to see any data records stored by DJI, they would have the right to do so,” Todd said. “There is also the question of if we get into a geopolitical confrontation with China, would DJI and the Chinese government have the ability to ground a portion of the US public safety fleet by just rendering these aircraft obsolete through software updates?”

He added: “If there is a legitimate national security concern, it makes sense to ground aircraft immediately without a sunset window, but if there is not a legitimate concern, then it makes sense to give public safety agencies time to use the equipment until the end of its serviceable life.”

Todd noted that one of the approved drones, manufactured by SKYDIO, contains “a wealth of Chinese parts and equipment.”

“So the debate is, is there really a difference between these two drones?” he said. “On the software side, probably, on the actual parts and mechanics side, not so much.”

Todd said public safety agencies will need time to purchase and train on new equipment approved by the state.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."