MIAMI – There’s a bipartisan push in the Florida Legislature to return Chinese-made drones back into service for the state’s first responders after a ban took effect earlier this month.
The ban took countless drones used by and for government agencies out of the sky, mainly affecting those made by the world’s most popular drone company, DJI.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration cited national security concerns in making the move. It had the consequence of grounding hundreds of drones statewide.
But representatives from local law enforcement agencies told lawmakers in a March hearing that drones made by state-approved manufacturers leave a lot to be desired.
“One of our pilots, on his drive home, he heard ‘snap, crackle, pop,’ one of the batteries outside the drone, not plugged in, on the floorboard of his vehicle, caught on fire,” a representative from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said.
A representative from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office said the approved drones have “limited capabilities,” cannot fly at night and their cameras are “not safe” to use.
Meanwhile, a representative from the Orlando Police Department called the approved drones a hazard.
“In one year and a half we had five failures with manufacturers on the (state approved) list. DJI? None,” the representative said. “That is going to put us in danger, the officers in danger, and the public in danger, when these drones continue to fall out of the sky.”
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, did not mince words about the approved drones either, calling the technology “s---ty” during the hearing.
Pizzo supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, to allow the DJI drones back into service until agencies can find a way to replace them, giving them more time to find alternatives.
“I hope to hell that we don’t have anybody lose a life over this silly rule,” Wright said.
The head of Florida’s Department of Management Services., Pedro Allende, told lawmakers at that hearing that he had just learned of a trade-in program for the drones.
“You just held up a piece of paper that a manufacturer just handed you?” Pizzo asked Allende. “You’re pimping for a vendor right now. Shame on you.”
Wright also stated that a US manufacturer on the “approved” list had increased its price for a drone by thousands of dollars after Florida banned Chinese drones.
“Would you be surprised to know there are people in this audience that have seen a $7,000 per drone price increase on that particular brand since January 1?” Wright asked. “I have the quotes.”
That brand, Skydio, is the one Pizzo accused Allende of “pimping” for. Local 10 News reached out to the company for comment. They replied, saying, in part:
“There has been no change in our pricing. Earlier this year, Skydio launched a trade-in program helping customers transition to Skydio’s solutions by offering fair market value for their current drones.”
Pizzo, describing his challenge during the hearing as “trying to bifurcate political theater from reality,” is disputing the premise behind banning the drones in the first place.
“None of us have been shown any evidence that we are sharing state secrets to China,” he said in an interview with Local 10 News.
Lt. Michael Crabb, with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, said at his agency, “all of the information received from the drone is completely disconnected from the internet and our secure network.”
“There is no possibility of any exposure of our network” from a DJI drone, he said.
Pizzo said the bill “has (had) three committee stops and hasn’t been heard once.”
“That said, there could always be an executive order, there could always be a special session, and there is still ample time to throw an amendment on another piece of legislation if the underlying bill doesn’t move,” he said.
In a statement to Local 10 News on Tuesday, the Department of Management services reiterated its belief that DJI drones present a security risk:
“Drones manufactured by foreign countries of concerns such as China pose a significant security risk, as evidenced by the Department of Defense’s specific ban on DJI drones,” the statement reads. “Throughout the public rulemaking process, numerous state agencies and law enforcement partners supported DMS’ efforts to allow the use of drones on the original federal list as well as drones that meet certain security standards.”
It goes on to say: “Even Washington agencies and elected officials on both sides of the aisle agree that Chinese drones present a security risk, as noted here, here, here, here, and here. Just as the department implemented the current rule as instructed in s. 934.50, F.S, DMS will adhere to any new legislation that is passed and signed into law.”