Last year, the US Interior Department, which is responsible for protecting federal property, grounded its fleet of more than 800 drones over concerns they might be infiltrated by Chinese spies. Today, an internal memo from the department leaked to The Financial Times says the move is hampering the federal government’s ability to combat wildfires.
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The fleet grounding has resulted in a de facto ban on the purchase of Chinese drones and drones that include Chinese components. That prompted the Department of Interior to cancel plans to buy 17 Ignis drones, the FT says. These are specialist UAVs that are used to start controlled fires, a crucial tool in wildfire prevention.
Without the drones, the leaked memo states, the department was forced to use crewed aircraft to start fires or burns at all. An internal departmental review found that just 28 percent of the regulated burns it had expected to do for its fleet of new drones by the end of the year would have been carried out.
“[The current fleet of the department] must expand to meet the requirement for preventive measures to reduce wildfire by vegetation reduction,” says the memo, reports the FT. “Denying the procurement of UAS [drone] aerial ignition devices directly transfers the risk to firefighters who need to use manned aircraft to complete these missions rather than a safer option using UAS.”
The FT says the internal memo was written by the department’s Aviation Services office earlier this year. The paper also states that while the US faces one of its worst wildfire seasons so far, no outbreaks have yet occurred on federal property.
The original decision to ground the fleet of the interior department is part of the Trump administration’s broader attempt to curb Chinese technology. Chinese manufacturer DJI dominates the drone industry in particular and when grounding news broke last year the department said none of its drones used only American parts. In addition to monitoring wildfires, the department uses drones to survey land and lakes, and track endangered wildlife.