Chinese Drones Made in America: One Company’s Plan to Win Over Trump

WASHINGTON — DJI, the large Chinese drone maker, is facing mounting security concerns within the Trump administration that its flying machines could send sensitive surveillance data back to China. Now, the company is trying to get on American officials’ good side by building a new product in the United States.

The company, which is privately held, said on Monday that it would repurpose a warehouse in Cerritos, Calif., to assemble a new version of a drone that has been popular among federal and local government agencies. The assembly of its flying devices in the United States will represent a small percentage of DJI’s overall global production. But it could help the company meet some necessary federal requirements.

In addition, the company is building the new machine, called the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual, so that it can save data it collects only on the drone itself, and can be taken off the machine only after it lands. The machine cannot transfer any of the information wirelessly online.

The new production facility and the drone’s data features, the company hopes, will be enough to allow the new product to be sold in the United States. About 70 percent of all drones in the country are supplied by DJI, according to one estimate. The company makes small drones for hobbyists as well as the higher-end industrial grade drones used to survey remote areas and forest fires, among other uses.

The announcement comes as President Trump prepares to meet with President Xi Jinping of China this week for trade talks that have put Chinese and American tech companies in the cross hairs of a prolonged and punishing battle over trade and a race for technology leadership.

The White House has said that the telecommunications giant Huawei and other Chinese technology companies have the ability to spy and steal commercial and government secrets, posing a security threat to the United States. Those concerns have bled into the trade and economic war with China, sending chills across the global technology industry.

Shenzhen-based DJI, or Da Jiang Innovations Science and Technology, is the latest Chinese technology company scrambling to retain its ability to sell to the United States.

Huawei was put on an exports blacklist last month. Last week, the Commerce Department put five more Chinese businesses on its “entity list,” which restricts the companies from purchasing American goods. Getting on the list can be a crippling blow for many makers of products like smartphones and wireless networks because they use global supply chains to gather all the necessary parts.

DJI has not been put on the administration’s export blacklist. But starting in late 2017, it became the focus of government scrutiny after American customs and immigration officials raised concerns that the drones, with cameras, mapping technology and infrared scanners, could be used to collect sensitive data and send it back to the Chinese government. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning expressing those same concerns about Chinese-made drones.

DJI executives reject the claims that its products post security vulnerabilities.

“We are getting caught up in geopolitical issues of the day,” Mario Rebello, vice president of DJI’s North American operations, said in an interview. “There is a lot of fear and hype, and a lot of it is not true and misleading.”

By assembling 60 percent of the new drone in the United States, DJI said it would be able to file for certification that its devices meet requirements of the Trade Agreement Act. The law requires that government agencies can purchase some products only if they are made in the United States.

DJI’s government customers have largely been using waivers to circumvent the trade law. Mr. Rebello said the company believed that it was now more likely to be blocked from selling to government agencies without certification that its products complied with the law.

DJI’s compliance with the law should give its customers greater comfort with security and safety of the machine, Mr. Rebello said. The new drone, meant for emergency responders, filmmakers and industrial inspections, is capable of carrying heavier cameras and other payload. It will be priced at up to $4,000.

The Cerritos plant was previously used by DJI to store drones for distribution. The assembly operations will bring in some highly skilled workers to put the drones together but is not expected to have a major effect on jobs.

“We are going to be more proactive to make sure we are saying as much information as possible,” Mr. Rebello said. “We’ve planned to invest in America but right now the time is right.”

Last month, however, Mr. Trump said, “If we made a deal, I can imagine Huawei being included in some form of, some part of a trade deal.”

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