Legislation which would have grounded most of Wisconsin’s public safety drone fleet failed to advance to the Governor’s desk, resulting in an “adverse disposal” at the end of the legislative session on March 15, 2022. The original bill, SB868, sought to prohibit any government agency in Wisconsin from utilizing drone manufactured by SZ DJI Technology Co., Ltd, better known as DJI. The legislation would have required any agency that already owned DJI drones to scrap them, purchase new equipment and retrain their pilots. Any agency that could not afford to do so would be forced to abandon their drone program. For more details on the original proposed legislation, see my previous post.
The original proposal drew strong opposition from police departments, fire departments, county land offices and numerous government agencies across the state. A public hearing was held at the capitol in Madison on February 2, 2022. Witnesses testified about the negative impact the legislation would have on public safety.
“This bill would ban the use of all aircraft manufactured by DJI in Wisconsin and would severely impact public safety efforts. These drones are a critical tool used on hundreds of missions each year from searching for an elderly dementia patient or a lost child, emergency management, bridge and infrastructure inspections, natural disaster assessments, and fire abatement techniques. Cariy Michiels, Legislative Advisor at the Department of Administration
The concerns of data integrity raised by Senator Roger Roth were widely known to public safety officials before the legislation was proposed. Independent studies by cybersecurity experts refuted claims that DJI drones are transmitting sensitive information back to China and mitigations are available to prevent data from being transmitted. One example of mitigation is described by Sean Kennedy, the Wisconsin DNR’s Legislative Director, “the department is able to utilize a “local data mode” which eliminates internet connections to protect drone flight data. The drone operators are then able to transfer the data at their discretion, ensuring that the information remains secure.” This measure was echoed by the WI Capital Police, “Local Data Mode is similar to airplane mode on your cell phone. It blocks certain access to the internet. Specifically, for DJI drones, once Local Data Mode is enabled, no data generated by the application is sent externally – not to DJI or any third party. Local Data Mode was expanded and implemented, verified by a third party, and is now used to ensure no data is shared externally beyond the operator and the drone application.”
Since data acquired by government owned drones is already subject to Wisconsin’s open records law, the legislation was viewed by many as a solution without a problem. Agencies such as WISDOT already post photos of bridge inspections on a public website, information that has been erroneously described as “sensitive infrastructure”. The majority of public safety drone operations involve search and rescue missions in rural areas. If images were transmitted to China as some believe, the Chinese government would be looking at trees, a cornfield or a burning structure. Those agencies which are using drones in places where security concerns are justified have the capabilities to protect the information. Simply put; no internet connection, no chance of a data leak.
Concerns of leaked of flight logs seem a bit ridiculous in light of the FAA’s Remote ID rule which goes into effect in September of 2023. Under the new rule, all drones weighing more than 250g will be required to broadcast identifying information (including the location of the pilot) in real time. This new requirement illustrates the absurdity of a foreign power gaining access to flight log information that will soon be openly broadcast to any member of the public carrying a smart phone.
While legislators articulate their concerns of cybersecurity, public safety agencies are more worried about losing a lifesaving tool of which they have already invested significant resources. In a letter dated February 3, 2022 a representative of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wrote, “Requiring the DNR to dispose of the majority of its drone fleet would severely hinder the completion of essential operations. Furthermore, replacing these drones would be incredibly expensive, and lead to the usage of inferior products.” These sentiments were echoed by the Capitol Police, “In addition to its utilization in public safety, this ban would have incredible financial implications for the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) and Capitol Police to dispose of and buy new or go without this important tool. A U.S. Department of Interior Report found that other unmanned aircraft systems “were up to 10X less capable for the same price, or up to 10X more costly than similarly capable DJI aircraft.”
Based on this and other feedback, Senator Roth introduced an amendment on March 10th which would have allowed agencies that purchased DJI drones prior to January 28, 2022 to keep them, provided they take steps to prevent the drone from sharing “sensitive information”. The amendment would still prohibit an agency from acquiring new DJI equipment. The amendment also failed to gain enough support which effectively put an end to it, for now. While it is possible the bill could be reintroduced in the next legislative session, that seems unlikely given the lack of support from both sides of the aisle. Senator Roth is said to be a supporter of law enforcement and was perhaps unaware of the negative impact this legislation would have had. Vigorous opposition voiced by firefighters and law enforcement organizations across the state created an interesting conundrum for the bill’s sponsors.