The downing of the Chinese surveillance balloon has been a significant news story. Recovery of the balloon’s massive sensors, called payloads, is still underway in the South Carolina coastal waters following the balloon’s downing by an F-22 fighter jet using a Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
In the meantime, several more unmanned aircraft were detected and downed off the Alaskan coast, Canadian Yukon frontier, and Lake Huron. It is unknown who is responsible for these aircraft, and recovery is underway.
We have since learned that the balloon was not the first incursion of a Chinese unmanned surveillance aircraft over the U.S. It has occurred several times during the Trump and Biden administrations. A February 13 New York Times article details the scope of the Chinese government’s ambitions to use high-altitude airships to track earthbound activities for both domestic and military needs.
We might wonder why this is such a big deal since the Chinese Government has satellite assets that continuously monitor the U.S. and much of the free world. The answer is fairly simple; a manned or unmanned aircraft operating at 60,000 feet, or roughly 12 miles above the earth, is capable of collecting information such as photographic, infrared, and radar imagery with much more granularity and detail than an earth-orbiting satellite operating somewhere between 400 miles above the earth for small satellites, up to 20,000 miles above the planet for large satellites.
To illustrate using a digital color camera, China’s small Beijing-3 satellite is believed to be capable of capturing color images of the earth with a resolution of 20 inches per pixel (according to an article published by Insider in December 2021). An air vehicle flying at 60,000 feet with the same camera and telescope would be capable of capturing images of the earth with a resolution of nearly one-half inch per pixel, forty times better than the Beijing-3 satellite. From the satellite, you might be able to identify a car. From an air vehicle, such as a balloon, flying at 60,000 feet, you could likely read the car’s license plate if you have the correct viewing angle.
The incursions into U.S. airspace over potentially sensitive military and cultural sites by a few high-altitude balloons could be just the tip of the iceberg.
The use of smaller, low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, better known in the commercial market as drones, has increased exponentially over the past ten years. The dominant global supplier of drones for recreational and commercial use is a Chinese company, Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), headquartered in Shenzhen, China. By most accounts, DJI controls over 70% of the world’s drone market. DJI’s estimated share of the U.S. drone market is believed to be slightly higher, approaching 75%.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) issued a ban on purchasing and using all commercial off-the-shelf drones, regardless of the manufacturer, citing cybersecurity concerns. In 2021 the DoD singled out DJI specifically, stating that “systems produced by Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) pose potential threats to national security.”
In October 2022, the DoD went even further, placing DJI on a banned procurement list, citing the company’s cozy relationship with the People’s Republic of China’s People’s Liberation Army as one deciding factor.
Nevertheless, DJI is strongly entrenched in U.S. markets and applications for a wide range of commercial, industrial, and security applications. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in June 2022, over 316,000 drones were registered in the U.S. for commercial applications. Assuming a 75% market share, it is probable that approximately 230,000 commercial drones, or more, are DJI products.
One of the products DJI offers to purchasers and users of its professional drones is an application software product called DJI Developer and DJI Application Programming Interface (API). One of the features of DJI Developer is a payload Software Developer Kit (SDK). In this context, a payload is defined as any instrument that collects information from the drone, such as a camera, a methane detector, or a listening device.
Instead of having to use separate, dedicated operating software and user interfaces for the payload, the SDK enables users of DJI’s drones to seamlessly integrate a wide range of payloads and operate them using the drone’s operating software and user interfaces. The Payload SDK makes using the drone and its payloads much easier and makes DJI’s drone products much more attractive in the professional drone marketplace.
A full description of DJI’s Developer and API products and associated legal agreements is available on DJI’s website.
It is not difficult to envision a pathway for information, imagery, communications, etc., collected using DJI drones equipped with DJI’s Payload SDK to find its way to the Chinese government or corporations in China that compete with U.S. companies in the international marketplace.
Whether or how frequently this is happening may be impossible to verify. But with more than 200,000 DJI drones likely operating in U.S. airspace for commercial use, the possible implications are serious enough to be concerning to any U.S. federal, state, or local government agency, law enforcement, and security agencies, and corporate users who are concerned with protecting their proprietary use of DJI’s technology and their own intellectual property.
Rich Zacaroli had a long and distinguished career in the private sector, and has served for over 30 years on numerous boards of non-governmental organizations in the education, cultural exchange, community development, and banking sectors. He is chair of the board of directors of Greenheart International. He is a member of Rotary International, a Paul Harris Fellow, past-president of the Rotary Club of South Sacramento, Rotary District 5180 Global Grant Scholarship Chair, and serves on the Pastoral Council for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento.