China’s DJI and its billionaire chief put in a sticky spot as both sides of Ukraine’s war use their drones
Under pressure from Ukraine to cut off Kremlin drones, DJI says its technology is not intended for the military. But with Ukraine and Russia both reportedly using DJI drones – and the US military as well – the Chinese company is walking a fine line.
Since Russia invaded his country, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov has written dozens of letters to tech companies urging them to stop doing business with what he calls the Kremlin war machine.
Among the latest targets is Chinese drone supplier DJI. Ukrainian and Russian military use DJI technology, says various social media posts and reportseven though DJI says its drones are for hobbyists, police, and first responders, not to help wage war.
Fedorov and Ukraine, however, are determined to suck up the DJI’s $15 billion in the European conflict. Fedorov claimed on Twitter on Wednesday that Russia was “using DJI products to pilot its missiles.” Fedorov raised particular concerns about DJI AeroScope’s drone detection tool, which he said Russia was deploying to identify Ukrainian DJI drones at a distance of around 30 miles.
Fedorov mounted a rather successful campaign urging tech companies around the world to isolate Russia. It’s found a receptive audience among most of the biggest companies in the US and Europe, but a bigger challenge awaits in China, which is trying to walk a tightrope between supporting Russia — but not too much — and stay in the good graces of the pro-Ukraine US and its allies.
In a letter to DJI’s billionaire CEO and founder, Frank Wang, Fedorov asked DJI to cut off drones in Ukraine that were not purchased and registered there, and to provide information on all DJI unmanned aircraft in the countries, including where and when they were activated. He then asked if DJI had already taken action to prevent Ukrainians from using its technologies, following reports of technical problems in the beleaguered country.
Fedorov asked Wang if he wanted DJI to be a partner in the murder. “Block your products that help Russia kill Ukrainians,” he wrote.
In response, DJI said its products, including AeroScope, did not meet military specifications and were intended for consumers. “The visibility given by AeroScope and future remote identification requirements are yet another reason why their use for military missions is inappropriate,” DJI said. noted on Twitter. Remote ID, as defined by DJI, is a requirement that means DJI devices will transmit a signal that acts “like an electronic license plate system for drones, allowing authorities to identify who is flying them.” . Remote ID was introduced to allay US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) concerns and will not be required until September 2023. Its implementation has nothing to do with Ukraine. Similar European requirements are not yet in force either.
The suggestion that no DJI technology was designed for military use was understandable but perhaps not convincing. Although the company does not openly sell to the armed forces, DJI knows that its designs are often suitable for military use. Forbes reviewed contracts that show that DJI technology, including AeroScope, has been used in government and military applications in the United States. For example, contract details obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that AeroScope was adapted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection via contractor Aerial Armor to extend the range and “monitor DJI drone activities at the southern border of the United States”. The US Army used the same contractor in 2020 for a $50,000 AeroScope order, and in 2021 the Army purchased $120,000 worth of DJI AeroScope technology through a Texas-based contractor. These contracts were signed despite growing antipathy to the government’s use of Chinese technology and a ban on US companies exporting to the drone maker.
A DJI spokesperson would not comment beyond the statement provided by the company on Twitter. Aerial Armor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
DJI finds itself in a delicate position during the war. China has refused to denounce Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, including its bombardment of hospitals and apartment buildings. In some cases, China has filtered its war reporting through the lens of the Kremlin. Wang, a secretive CEO worth $4.8 billion, is highly unlikely to halt sales to Russia, a move that would certainly be seen as flouting Beijing’s economic ties with Moscow.
Yet, just as China honors its financial commitments to Ukraine and its allies, DJI is trying to make some concessions to officials in Kyiv. In response to Fedorov’s letter, the drone maker said it could take certain steps to help prevent its technology from being used in the country, such as establishing geofences that would turn off unmanned aerial vehicles when ‘they would enter a given region, but with the caveat that such a step would be limited.
“If the Ukrainian government formally requests DJI to implement geofencing throughout Ukraine, we will organize it according to our policy,” the company wrote. “This would apply to all DJI drones in Ukraine, regardless of who flies them, but it might not stop all flights. Please note that geolocation is not infallible, and if the user does not connect to the Internet to update the geolocation data, the new geolocation will not take effect for the drone.
DJI added that it had “in no way changed the functionality of our AeroScope system in Ukraine, and many Ukrainian AeroScope units are still functioning. DJI’s sales and service in Ukraine have been consistent and unchanged. As for the request to provide user data, DJI could not do so “unless the user actively submits it to us. We do not have the ability to identify and verify a user’s location. and, therefore, we do not hold the data you requested.
DJI did not say whether the company would shut down Russian drones in the country.
Not that DJI is alone in its predicament when it comes to sales in Russia. Forbes reported on Thursday the German software giant SAP, which has contracts with several Russian companies that ended up being sanctioned when the Russian army invaded Ukraine.