The Australian Border Force has grounded a fleet of 41 drones it had acquired since 2017 from a manufacturer accused of having links to the Chinese military.
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The agency has suspended the use of its DJI drones, which have been blacklisted by the US military and have also been suspended by Australia’s Department of Defence, Home Affairs chief operating officer Justine Saunders confirmed in Senate estimates this week.
“I actually issued a directive [last] week indicating that they are not to be used. When ABF actually ceased using them, I would have to confirm,” she said.
“We are all alive to what Defence’s position has been in regard to this matter, and we’ve been engaging with Defence in regard to the review they’re undertaking. We’ll be working with them and other partners to satisfy ourselves as to the implications of the use of this technology before it is used.”
In response to questioning from opposition home affairs spokesperson James Paterson in Senate estimates, Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo said that, as critical technologies become more interconnected, governments around the world may adopt “more uniform or ubiquitously restrictive approaches” to their technology use.
“The question, I think, governments of all persuasions across democracies generally will have to confront is how direct they start to become in terms of saying ‘here is a type of kit or type of technology that you will not use’,” he said.
“I suspect we’re going to have to consider that approach more ubiquitously simply because the connectivity of devices, the connectivity of technologies, the way in which a drone, or camera, or some kind of imaging device could potentially beacon back or send its data back to a host server.
“But that said, we’re working through it very carefully and purposefully.”
Defence has also embarked on a six-month audit of all its DJI technology, including hundreds of drones, suspending their use as “high-risk technology”. The cessation order issued earlier this month barred the use of commercial off-the-shelf and modified off-the-shelf technology from DJI, which is the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer.
“DJI Systems and equipment are to remain de-energised until further notice. Defence elements needing to operate DJI products and technology for operational and/or safety essential purposes only are to advise,” the order read.
In a statement last year, DJI denied it is a “military company”, saying it “has always opposed combat use of civilian drones”.
“We have never designed or manufactured military-grade equipment; we have never marketed or sold our products for combat use in any country; and we take active steps to try to keep our drones from being modified for use as weapons. We have followed these principles for our entire existence, and we are emphasising them again in light of recent developments,” the manufacturer said.
“We have never approved or enabled any use of our products to cause harm. This is the ethical standard we always have and always will stand by.”