US govt grounds Chinese drones. DJI remains flying agtech success

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China-based company SZ DJI Technology Co., Ltd. (DJI), is the world-leading manufacturer of unmanned vehicles and supplier of more than 70 percent of drones in the US. As staff writer for DJI who’s covered their drones before the Trump administration grounded them, I can almost guarantee their drones are used for nothing more devious than dosing your fields when they burn, helping you improve your yields, and detecting crops that need treating, among other items.

Earlier this month, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) grounded its entire fleet of 810 unmanned vehicles of which 121 were manufactured by DJI.  In October, 2019, DOI spokesperson Melissa Brown had disclosed that:

“Secretary Bernhardt is reviewing the Department of the Interior’s drone program. Until this review is completed, the Secretary has directed that drones manufactured in China or made from Chinese components be grounded unless they are currently being utilized for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property”

As of yesterday (Wednesday January 29th) the DOI made official its decision to permanently ground its Chinese built drones pending further detailed investigation. Only in emergency situations (such as natural disasters) will the drones will be allowed to fly.

US protectionism or national security matter?

President Trump has long spoken in dark terms about China, as the Financial Times recently reported, saying that its leaders have “cheated” the US and that its intelligence agents spy on people there. In the UK this week the decision on whether to use Chinese 5G technologies as part of the British information infrastructure was heavily lent on by the US administration, again with cyber security concerns the primary driver.

Some Chinese analysts say the fight is not over national security but market share. These Chinese analysts see the US policies as a form of protectionism. In September, the Trump administration leveraged tariffs on Chinese goods, forcing DJI to boost prices on its Mavic drone line by about 13 percent, making them more expensive for farmers and agronomists. Already in 2017, that same Administration had accused DJI of collecting information about US sites and transmitting data back to Beijing.

It’s all a disinformation campaign,” Michael Oldenburg, a spokesman for DJI Technology Inc, told me, “to make companies distrust drones from China and buy from the US instead. It’s a politically-motivated decision to create a market for fully-US manufactured drones.” Today DJI released an official statement in reaction to the permanent DOI grounding.

Although 88 percent of respondents told DroneResponders earlier this year that they would prefer to buy drones from a US company, US-made drones are simply more expensive, less reliable and more complex than those made by DJI.

DJI’s presence in the US is not new

For more than 14 years, DJI drones have battled blazing US fields and buildings. Over just the last year, these drones dealt with 7,860 fires in California alone – and saved more than 259,823 acres of land. Throughout, DJI Mavics have been there scouting the skies, woods and canyons, snuffing out flames, plucking victims from waters, and directing fire-fighters to where they were most needed.

As Ron Early, Chief of Wake Forest Fire Department in North Carolina, and a major user of DJI drones noted:

Having simple solutions like drones stream a live feed with their speed, giving you a different perspective – its three-dimensional perspective – I think these drones will have a major impact on our future. There’s no doubt that UAV systems is going to be important and it’s on its way into the fire service.”

Here’s how DJI drones will continue to help farmers with the 3 D’s

With private and commercial use of Chinese-made drones unaffected in the US, they remain a key tool for improving business processes and improving crop yields. For agronomists and farmers, DJI drones do your 3 Ds, namely your dull, dirty, and dangerous work.

The benefits they give you include the following:

  • They help you map out your land for plot management. Their 3D photographs/maps show you where soil erosion or irrigation issues could occur.
  • They track irrigation. Spectral or thermal imaging tell you which parts of your field have too much or too little water.
  • DJI drones monitor your cattle and herds through thermal imagery, i.e. the heat signature of the animal that’s picked up by the drone camera. These alert you to livestock disease. At this same time, these drones also pick out structural anomalies, such as wrecked fences.
  • Drones perform crop assessments where their cameras spot critical information about your crops. Drones with multispectral camera develop Vegetation Index (VI) maps that point out unhealthy plants.
    DJI drones use imagery to document the pre- and post-disaster status of your crops and livestock for insurance procedures.
  • A special line of DJI drones crop spray – They apply precise amount of chemicals to fungible crops.
DJI drone image output

DJI drone image output

Two DJI drones for agriculture: P4 Multispectral and Agras T-16

Thoroughly vetted, DJI’s got its P4 Multispectral ready to hit the skies.

P4 Multispectral - the Precision Agriculture and Land Management' drone

P4 Multispectral – the Precision Agriculture and Land Management’ drone

Equipped with a ground-breaking multispectral camera array that is capable of capturing visible and invisible light, this so-called ‘Precision Agriculture and Land Management’ drone is outfitted to scout your fields or orchards to pick out problems.  Their imagery helps you identify issues that affect crop health, such as seeding or application errors, tile drainage, weather damage, pests, disease, and more.

Normally, it takes farmers hours to laboriously trek their lands for an informed look on how their  yield’s doing – which crops need treating from insects, which fields need more or less irrigation and so forth. The drones do this in a fraction of the time.

US-manufactured drones, in contrast, tend to crash over long distances. Their cameras, too, are typically spotty. It takes special equipment for clear sightings. And that’s where the DJI P4 drone with its precise multispectral imaging helps you best.

The technique is simple: the drones fly over and photograph your grounds. Then, you use another company’s service to analyze the photos using Cloud technology.

Over in Asia, DJI delights farmers with their Agras T-16 crop-spraying drone. This one sprays the precise amount of chemicals over needy crops to help you improve your yields.  It’s especially useful for terraced landscaping in Asia, where it’s difficult to drive machinery over the fields.

DJI's Agras T-16 crop-spraying drone

DJI’s Agras T-16 crop-spraying drone

American field laborers could use these DJI crop-spraying drones too, but, so far, Iowa and New York seem to be the only states where farmers seem to be gaining ground in using this technology.

Federal security agencies,” Michael told me, “put the brakes on innovation in order to manage and mitigate the risks drones could present. It’s harder to put the genie back in the bottle when it comes to our popular consumer and commercial drones, because these drones are already flying. It’s far easier to create regulations that would make it more difficult to legally use a spray drone – aside from which there’s the fear of drones spraying suspicious chemicals.

Obtaining FAA 137 certification

To introduce the Agras T1-6 in North America depends on companies and eventually farmers getting the FAA 137 permit to use them.

That’s like license plates for cars,” Michael explained, “that allow officers to identify its owner. In the same way, you’d want something like that for drones to provide accountability and a way to separate good from bad ones.”

After all, that drone you see flying above your house could simply be delivering your mail, the other delivers your pizza and that drone drone buzzing the airport, well that one might need checking.

So, while the Agras drones are already available in the US, operators – both businesses offering spraying as a service as well as farmers themselves – will need to obtain the FAA 137 certification.

Of all companies that produce unmanned vehicles,” Michael concluded, “our drones are far and away the safest, most secure, most trusted brand on the market today. There’s nothing to worry about with data security or safety of our products.

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About Author


Leah Zitter is an award-winning High-Tech writer/ journalist with a PhD in Research and clients that include the Association For Advancing Automation (A3).

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