China is set to restrict exports of drones. Here’s what that means for DJI (and you)

Drones, including potentially some of DJI’s most popular drones, could soon be in short supply very soon — at least anywhere outside of China. That’s because China imposed restrictions Monday on exports of long-range civilian drones on Monday, July 31, as reported by the Associated Press. Those China export controls could make it difficult (and expensive) to get your hands on certain drone products — in particular DJI’s thermal drones.

The move is a response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, it and stems from concern that even consumer or industrial-grade drones might be used for military purposes. For what it’s worth, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government says it is neutral in the war. But in response to reports that both sides might be using drones in battle and for reconnaissance, China has turned to export controls on certain types of drones in an effort to prevent either side from using its drones.

Many of the major drone manufacturers including Autel and Yuneec are based in China. And then there’s no ignoring the largest of them all: DJI. Products from those companies (as well as other Chinese drone makers) could be affected.

“When these export controls come into place, we will see a lack of availability for thermal-enabled drones from Chinese manufacturers like Autel and DJI, which make up the overwhelming majority of the market,” said David Benowitz, Director of Marketing at BRINC, which is a Seattle-based company that builds drones for public safety and defense applications. (Editor’s note: Benowitz worked for DJI for about 4 years between 2016 and 2020 in its marketing department.)

“Prices will rise across the board as customers seek alternatives for these drones that are key for utilities, public safety agencies and many other critical businesses,” Benowitz said.

The DJI Mavic 3T drone. Photo courtesy of DJI.

What do the China export controls mean for DJI?

While China’s export control regulations on drones was announced at the beginning of this week, a spokesperson for DJI said the new regulation wouldn’t take effect until Sept. 1, 2023.

So what does that actually mean for DJI, and how will this affect its sales worldwide?

“Currently, DJI is evaluating the specific impact to our business and our customers by this new regulation,” according to a statement issued to The Drone Girl by a DJI spokesperson.

That said, it does seem as though any notion idea that you might no longer be able to get your hands on new DJI drones, say the newly-launched DJI Air 3 drone, are a bit overblown. In general, it looks like consumer products are not affected by the China export controls. Instead, they’ll mostly affect thermal-equipped, enterprise products, such as the DJI Mavic 3T.

And even DJI’s industrial equipment might not necessarily be affected, either.

“According to the Chinese Commerce Department, drones and drone-related equipment can be exported normally after fulfilling relevant compliance criteria as long as they are used for legitimate civilian purposes,” according to a DJI statement issued to The Drone Girl.

A DJI spokesperson added that the company had plans to let dealers and customers know once it had more specific information on which models or parts could be impacted by this new regulation.

How has DJI responded to Russia’s war in Ukraine?

DJI has long held the stance that it opposes military use of its products.

“We want to reiterate a position we have long held: our products are made to improve people’s lives and benefit the world, and we absolutely deplore any use of our products to cause harm,” according to a statement made by the company in 2022. “DJI has only ever made products for civilian use; they are not designed for military applications.”

From there, DJI has taken extra steps to show that it wants to remain a neutral party in Russia’s war in Ukraine. In April 2022, DJI formally announced that it would pause its business activities in both Russia and Ukraine.

Here was the brief statement that DJI issued in April 2022:

DJI is internally reassessing compliance requirements in various jurisdictions. Pending the current review, DJI will temporarily suspend all business activities in Russia and Ukraine. We are engaging with customers, partners and other stakeholders regarding the temporary suspension of business operations in the affected territories.

-Statement from DJI, issued on April 26, 2022

And more than a year later, DJI is reiterating that same stance. A DJI spokesperson delivered the following statement to The Drone Girl this week:

DJI was founded 17 years ago to develop drone technology that can make the world better. We have made it absolutely clear that our products are for civilian use only. We absolutely deplore any use of our products to cause harm. We have never designed, developed or manufactured military-grade equipment, we have never adapted our products or pursued business opportunities for combat operations; we have never marketed or sold our products for combat use in any country.

Even before today’s new export control regulations, we required our distributors, resellers, and other business partners to agree in writing that they will not sell DJI products to customers who clearly plan to use them for combat purposes or help modify our products to be used for combat operations. If they do not adhere to this commitment, we will terminate our business relationship with them.

-Statement from DJI, issued to The Drone Girl on August 6, 2023

A Ukrainian drone operator from the 3rd Assault brigade lands his drone after a surveillance flight on July 16, 2023 near Bakhmut in the Donetsk Region of Ukraine. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

How drones are presently used in Russia’s war in Ukraine

Despite DJI’s strong stance that its drones should not be used in war, both consumer drones (like those made by DJI) and military drones have reportedly been used by both sides.

In March 2022, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov wrote an open letter to DJI CEO Frank Wang asking the company to stop doing business in Russia, claiming that Russian troops were using DJI products to navigate missile attacks.

Of course, it’s not just Russia using drones. Ukraine has been open about accepting drones from other countries and companies — both of the consumer and military sort.

For example, in 2022, Politico reported that Ukrainian officials asked the United States government for strike drones, such as the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Politico also reported that the Pentagon had already sent Ukraine multiple small, expendable Switchblade drones and the new Phoenix Ghost.

In July 2023, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine accepted an order of Skydio drones, which it would use to take photo and video content to document war crimes. Also this summer, Puerto Rico-based military drone and technology giant Red Cat fulfilled a purchase order consisting of 200 long-range, high-speed FPV (first-person view) drones, which would be given to Ukrainian drone pilots engaged in conflict with Russia. Previously, Red Cat-owned Teal upplied 15 Golden Eagle drone units, plus spares and training to an unspecified NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member country in 2022, which said it would use them for deployment in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, small (and often volunteer-run) groups in Ukraine have used store-bought drones that they modify and militarize, including drones from Chinese drone maker Autel, French company Parrot and, yes, DJI.

A Ukrainian serviceman flies a drone on the outskirts of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine on December 30, 2022. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)

How China export controls will impact the global drone industry

Experts predict that the China export controls on drones will have a large impact on the U.S. drone industry, particularly given that most drones are made in China (as are most drone parts).

“This will test the mettle of U.S. drone companies as they will be asked quickly to ramp up production while keeping product quality high,” Benowitz told The Drone Girl. “Many are obviously seeing this as a large opportunity to gain market share, and we may see new models being pushed out quickly.”

Benowitz’s company, BRINC, is an American drone company primarily known for its LEMUR 2 drone, which is NDAA compliant (meaning BRINC doesn’t source any critical components from China). BRINC already designs and manufactures most of its drone parts from its Seattle headquarters and production facility. It also works with other U.S. shops for work that requires specialized tooling.

“We expect other US manufacturers will need to do the same once these controls go into effect,” Benowitz said.

BRINC’s LEMUR 2 drone. Photo courtesy of BRINC

The China export control news comes at a particularly interesting time — not just because of the war in Ukraine, but also in the context that the U.S. government has been increasingly considering banning Chinese-made drones for use by government agencies. Examples of such legislation include the American Security Drone Act, a bill proposed in February 2023 by Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida that would prohibit most federal agencies from using drones manufactured in China (which includes DJI drones).

“There is an obvious irony when looking at it from our domestic perspective,” Benowitz said. “With the U.S. government considering bans of DJI and Autel products, the Chinese government has more heavily restricted them both in one fell swoop.”

Related read: Advocacy group forms to fight bans on certain drone companies — with one key player

The Autel EVO Max 4T drone. Photo courtesy of Autel.

What you should do now

If you’re a consumer of DJI’s, well, consumer products: keep calm and carry on. DJI camera drones aren’t likely to be impacted by the China export controls.

But for enterprise products that are made in China (particularly those that use thermal cameras), you should move fast to get your hands on one if you’ve been considering it.

That might include products like the DJI Mavic 3 Thermal, which was selling for about $5,500 at press time on B&H Photo. Non-DJI drones likely to be affected include Autel’s EVO II Dual 640T drone with thermal imaging, which is going for $7,000 at press time through B&H Photo. As of publication, the DJI Mavic 3 Thermal is back-ordered, but the Autel EVO II Dual 640T drone is still in stock.

But that might not last for long.

“Enterprise drones will be rapidly impacted as customers will look to quickly purchase the existing merchandise held by local distributors,” Benowitz said. We will likely see heavy price hikes leading up to September 1.”

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