Last year, the US Interior Department, which is responsible for maintaining federal land, grounded its fleet of more than 800 drones over fears they could be compromised by Chinese spies. Now, an internal memo from the department leaked to The Financial Times says the decision is hampering the federal government’s ability to fight wildfires.
The grounding of the fleet led to a de facto ban on the purchase of Chinese drones and drones containing Chinese parts. This caused the Interior Department to cancel plans to buy 17 Ignis drones, says the FT. These are specialist UAVs used to start managed burns, a key tool in controlling wildfires.
Without the drones, says the leaked memo, the department has been forced to use crewed aircraft to start fires or not carry out burns at all. An internal analysis from the department found that by the end of the year it will only have carried out 28 percent of the controlled burns it had planned to do with its fleet of new drones.
“[The department’s current fleet] must expand to meet the demand of preventative measures mandated for the reduction of wildfire via vegetation reduction,” says the memo, reports the FT. “Denying the acquisition of UAS [drone] aerial ignition devices directly transfers risk to firefighters who must use manned aircraft to complete these missions rather than a safer option utilising UAS.”
The FT says the internal memo was authored earlier this year by the department’s Office of Aviation Services. The publication also notes that although the US is facing one of its worst wildfire seasons to date, no outbreaks have yet taken place on federal land.
The original decision to ground the Interior Department’s fleet is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to restrict Chinese technology. The drone market in particular is dominated by Chinese manufacturer DJI, and when news of the grounding broke last year, the department said none of its drones used only American parts. The agency uses drones not only to control wildfires, but to survey land and dams and monitor endangered wildlife.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said last year that the department’s fleet would be grounded until a complete security review could be carried out. Bernhardt noted that drones could still be dispatched in emergency situations, including fighting natural disasters, but this provision does not seem to have extended to the purchasing of new hardware. The temporary grounding was reaffirmed in January this year, but it’s not clear what progress has been made on a security review.