House passes NDAA FY25 defense bill, moving controversial drone act to Senate

The House of Representatives narrowly passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA FY25) on Friday, a move that also advances a controversial provision targeting China: the Countering CCP Drones Act. This act, embedded within the NDAA, now heads to the Senate, raising concerns for the future of American drone pilots.

The $883.7 billion NDAA FY25 defense bill was in what was a tight 217 to 199 vote, which largely fell along party lines. 196 Democrats opposed the bill and just six supported it. Meanwhile, Republicans came in with 211 votes in favor, and only three against it.

The bill covers a range of topics and had all sorts of amendments. Some are quite specific to the military such as funding for Ukraine. Others cover less military-sepcific topics like drag shows and abortion.

The topic that the drone industry has been closely watching, though? A potential ban on DJI drones, as well as other drones made in China. That’s through a piece within NDAA FY25 called the Countering CCP Drones Act.

All eyes on the Countering CCP Drones Act

The Countering CCP Drones Act aims to limit DJI drones by adding DJI to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Covered List. In doing so, future DJI technologies would be unable to operate on U.S. communications infrastructure.

DJI drones are massively popular among both hobbysits and enterprise operations for their affordability and ease of use, but some politicians have leaned into fears that these Chinese-made drones pose security risks.

Meanwhile, many drone pilot advocates worry the act could have unintended consequences. Replacing a large number of existing drones would be expensive and time-consuming. More importantly, some fear the switch to potentially less user-friendly American alternatives would make operations more difficult — and render their existing fleets potentially moot (it’s not clear whether the ban would only apply to new drones versus existing ones too).

Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the controversial bill in the House in April 2023.

“DJI drones pose the national security threat of TikTok, but with wings,” Stefanik said. “The possibility that DJI drones could be equipped to send live imagery of military installations, critical infrastructure, and the personal lives of American citizens to China poses too great a threat. Allowing this practice to continue in the U.S. is playing with fire. This Chinese-controlled company cannot be allowed to continue to operate in the U.S.”

Will NDAA FY25 pass in the Senate?

The act’s fate in the Senate remains uncertain. But for what it’s worth, Republicans hold a majority in the U.S. House, where the NDAA FY25 bill overwhelmingly passed. Meanwhile, Democrats — and independents who caucus with Democrats — hold a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Given that, the House’s version of the bill could have a tougher time passing there. After all, while some lawmakers share concerns about Chinese drone security risks, others might prioritize the cost-effectiveness of existing technology. Additionally, the tight budget constraints outlined in the NDAA could lead to a scaling back or removal of the act entirely.

As is typical, the Senate is working on their own version of the NDAA FY25 legislation. In fact, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held a full committee markup last week for the NDAA FY25, advancing legislation to the Senate floor for consideration. The Senate version includes an even-higher figure of $912 billion in funding for the national defense of the U.S.

Both the House and Senate versions far exceed the bipartisan debt ceiling agreement.

As for what’s next? The Senate will then need to pass its own version of the NDAA FY25 bill. From there, House and Senate leaders will negotiate a compromise bill.

Often, controversial measures — like the Countering CCP Drones Act — end up getting stripped out or heavily modified in order to pass both chambers — and to avoid President Joe Biden potentially vetoing the bill.

But that’s not to say the bill doesn’t still have a chance at passing. And if it does, it could significantly upend the drone industry as we know it.

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