FSU, TCC programs affected by DeSantis, Florida crackdown on Chinese-made drones
“We knew this was coming for a while,” FSU Center for Disaster Risk Policy Director David Merrick said.
A new Gov. Ron DeSantis administration rule took effect recently to forbid the popular DJI-manufactured drones (Da Jiang Innovations) and other foreign aircraft from being used by state agencies — including colleges and universities.
While the Florida State University Center for Disaster Risk Policy’s drone team currently has 35 operational drones, 14 others — which have usually been used during disasters — have been stashed away on its shelves because of the new law.
Out of the 14 banned drones, most of them are DJI drones the team used to help during significant events such as the Surfside, Florida condo collapse at Champlain Towers in June 2021 and Hurricane Ian in southwest Florida in September 2022.
“For years, we’ve used DJI aircraft because they’re inexpensive and easy to use,” FSU Center for Disaster Risk Policy Director David Merrick told the Tallahassee Democrat. “Now we’ve shifted away from them to a Paris-based company called Parrot, which is fine, but they’re just not the same quality.”
The DeSantis administration rule was finalized in efforts to get rid of any threatening foreign influence that might exist across the state through the devices.
In a committee hearing, Department of Management Services Secretary Pedro Allende noted that federal agencies Chinese-manufactured drones over concerns about spying, but he was not able to provide proof of such evidence.
“As a state, we’re a high-value target,” Allende said, according to the Miami Herald. “Florida has troves of information that our adversaries want on both the civilian and military sides.”
Other affected agencies in the state include police and fire departments. One lawmaker estimated that police and other agencies have bought an estimated $200 million in DJI drones over the years, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
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Besides DJI, Autel — another popular Chinese manufacturing company that makes drones — is also forbidden under the rule.
The law on the use of drones was initially passed under Senate Bill 44 in 2021, which required the Department of Management Services to publish a list of approved drone manufacturers that meet security requirements.
On April 5, the department officially published a list of five approved manufacturers — Skydio, Parrot, Altavian, Teal Drones and Vantage Robotics — most of which are based in the U.S.
The list was then archived and replaced with a set of minimum security standards that drone companies must meet in order to be approved, and they include the requirement for government agencies to only purchase and use drones that do not come from “foreign countries of concern,” according to the rule.
“We knew this was coming for a while,” Merrick said. “But frankly, nothing is as cost effective as DJI and Autel.”
On the low end, the drones made by the approved manufacturers cost about five times as much as DJI drones, according to Merrick. The cost of DJI drones can range from $200 to $2,000, depending on the device’s size.
Merrick added that the drones from the approved manufacturing companies perform about 80% of what the DJI drones would do.
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He also says the biggest challenge has been in teaching since there are classes on FSU’s campus — such as Application of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems — that teach students how to fly drones. The DJI drones that would normally be used by students are not as difficult to operate compared to the other types.
Through Tallahassee Community College, the Wakulla Environmental Institute’s Unmanned Technology Applications program is also impacted by the drone rule as a result of having to adapt to the new aircraft.
The purpose of the institute’s program is to educate students on the various aspects of the drone-related field through training courses and a seminar series.
A new group of drones was recently bought for use in the program from companies including Parrot, Skydio and Teal Drones to replace the aircraft that were previously being used, which were all DJI-manufactured — 14 for training and 10 in the classroom setting.
“The replacement drones were, in some cases, up to four times the amount of a DJI drone,” TCC Wakulla Environmental Institute’s Associate Director Albert Wynn said. “However, they are not yet equipped with some of the more recent functionalities — like multispectral imaging — that would allow us to train in things like precision agriculture training for farmers.”
“Technology is always evolving, and we are always on the lookout for how the college can upgrade our drones to expand our program,” he added.
Most of the new drones have already been delivered to the institute and are currently being used to train instructors, according to Wynn.
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While FSU’s 35 approved drones that are being used mostly consist of devices from the Parrot company, Merrick says that more drones could eventually be purchased soon to make up for the ones that are grounded, but it is not yet confirmed.
“There’s always cybersecurity concerns, and that’s true about any devices when you don’t know exactly where it was manufactured or what’s in it,” Merrick said. “I don’t think there’s a greater risk because of drones versus phones, tablets and other network devices that we use all the time.”
Contact Tarah Jean at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @tarahjean_.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not state that the list of five approved manufacturers have been archived. There is now a set of minimum security standards that drone companies must meet in order to be approved, which has replaced the list of manufacturers.