US lawmakers wave red flags over Chinese drone dominance

Congressman warns tech is getting the 'Huawei Playbook' treatment

US Congress members warned against Chinese dominance of the drone industry on Wednesday, elevating the threat posed by Beijing's control of the technology as similar to that of semiconductors and ships.

At a hearing hosted by the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), congressman John Moolenaar called semiconductors, drones, and ships "key technologies and sectors that will determine future conflicts".

As the committee's chairman, Moolenaar also elucidated that Beijing is successfully strategizing to dominate the technologies using a method he referred to as "the Huawei Playbook."

"Pick a national champion in a strategic industry. Subsidize. Employ predatory pricing to offer its products at a massive, anti-competitive price point. Expand globally. Drive out the competition. Then leverage newfound dependencies to advance CCP interests," summarized the chairman.

Moolenaar suggested the US clear its skies of Chinese-made drones, and advocated for sanctions and other methods that "install market access barriers."

While drones are not the only industry Beijing seeks to control, CEO of US drone-maker Skydio Adam Bry pointed out that the impact of such methods on the drone industry is "especially severe."

According to data from the committee, China currently controls 90 percent of the US drone market, with DJI taking the lion's share of 80 percent.

But it's not the size of market share alone that makes Chinese drone dominance dangerous for a US in conflict with Beijing, it's the capabilities of the tech that will be enabled through AI.

"AI and autonomy will become the defining characteristics of drones, expanding their usage from one-to-one tools where one pilot controls a single drone, to one-to-many teammates where one operator controls numerous autonomous drones at massive scale, giving superpowers to their human operators," explained Bry.

He referred to drone technology as it currently stands as "still nascent" and the industry as "in its infancy."

"It would be completely insane to accept a future where we depend on our geopolitical adversaries to supply these drones," said Bry.

Testimony from hearing participants acknowledged that semiconductors actually power drones, therefore making them critical to their very existence. However, according to Bry, drones warrant concern and attention as they "represent the first frontier of embodied AI, the opening act of a future defined by AI-enabled robotics."

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have also previously warned against Chinese drones, including last January regarding their potential for espionage on behalf of the CCP. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did so as well including in May 2019.

While dronemakers like DJI have for years claimed their gadgets pose no national security risk, they still ended up on the US export control list in 2020.

US companies and individuals are restricted from exporting, re-exporting, or transferring certain items to DJI without obtaining a specific license from the US government.

Laws like the American Security Act in 2023 further limited Chinese drone use in federal agencies, a move the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Scott Paul, called in his committee testimony "a good first step."

But for now it seems like there's not much other choice for sourcing drones, meaning Beijing may have succeeded exactly as intended.

"Competition did not exist in the drone industry until very recently," asserted Bry. He said there were only two to three US companies capable of building hardware like his company's autonomous AI-powered Skydio X10.

"The other one to two companies are in China," he added. ®

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