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Rantizo DJI drone in action
Spray drones are increasingly used to complement traditional ground spraying systems for difficult-to-reach areas, soggy ground, or areas where greater precision is required than can be delivered by manned aerial spraying vehicles such as planes and helicopters, says Rantizo. Image credit: Rantizo

Ray of hope for farmers using DJI ag spray drones following release of Senate version of defense spending bill

July 10, 2024

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has released the full text of its marked up version of the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Unlike the version that passed in the House of Representatives last month, it does not include provisions to curb the activities of Chinese drone maker DJI Technologies, the market leader in ag spray drones in the US.

The House version of the bill sent shockwaves through the agricultural community last month as it included amendments from the Countering CCP Drones Act that would add equipment and services from DJI to the so-called ‘covered list,’ blocking DJI from getting FCC licenses for future drone models, and potentially leading to the revocation of existing FCC authorizations.

The SASC version, which was passed behind closed doors last month in a 22-3 vote, will now head to the Senate floor for consideration. Should it pass the full Senate it must then be reconciled with the House version.

DJI: ‘As there are two versions of the NDAA it will have to go to conference’

Adam Welsh, head of global policy at DJI, told AgFunderNews: “As the SASC meets behind closed doors, it’s hard to know exactly why the provision against DJI in the House version was left out of the Senate markup. There has been a lot of engagement in recent weeks from people who rely on our products for their businesses, their livelihoods, to save lives [firefighters and other emergency services], to spray their crops, and you certainly would hope that that has an impact on the thinking. But we don’t know.”

As for what happens next, he said, “As there are two versions of the NDAA it will have to go to conference and conferees appointed from the House and from the Senate will have to sit down and hash out the differences in the text. And you don’t know who the conferees are until they are announced.

“If it [the provision vs DJI] had been in the Senate version, there’s a very good likelihood that it would have made it into the final bill.  Because it’s not, they will have to debate the differences and try to figure out what the best options are. All we can do is keep engaging with people and reaffirm that there’s no data security issue with our product, that we’ve been vetted repeatedly, and that if they effectively ban DJI it’s going to not just hurt DJI but a number of different verticals including agriculture.”

He added: “The August recess is coming up where senators and representatives will be back in their districts, so that’s a perfect opportunity for people to try to engage with lawmakers and explain why DJI drones are so important to their businesses.

“We definitely don’t want to take our foot off the gas, so we’re trying to meet with as many people we can on the Hill to go through what we do on data security, and we’re also encouraging our customers to stay engaged and keep up the pressure.”

NDAA likely to pass in lame duck period

As for when the NDAA might ultimately pass, he said, “We think the most likely result is that this will probably go to a vote in the lame duck period [between November and January], just because we’re coming up to an election.”

While existing DJI drone models would likely not be impacted if DJI is added to the ‘covered list,’ the move would nevertheless have a huge impact on the ag sector given that DJI brings out at least one new model every year, said Welsh. “If you look at the agricultural spray sector, we’re always looking to see how we can make our drones more efficient, fly longer and hold more capacity, so they can do bigger acreages. We’re also constantly working on the spray nozzles to reduce spray pattern drift.”

Asked what he felt was the motivation behind going after DJI, and why—if the concern is about data going back to China—other Chinese drone operators are not being targeted, he said: “This kind of gets to the meat of the issue. It started out with questions about data security, which we’ve addressed, and then the argument moved on to our [dominant] market share and whether small [US] manufacturers can compete on price or quality, and so I think that’s now the main driver.

“If another Chinese firm were the size of DJI, rest assured they would be targeted as well.”

Rantizo DJI drone in action
Image credit: Rantizo

‘Four out of every five Agras drones utilized by US farmers are DJI models’

US farmers have been steadily increasing their use of spray drones in recent years, with 3.7 million acres sprayed by drone in 2023 across 41 states and 50 crops, mostly by Chinese-made drones, claim US resellers of DJI equipment.

Mariah Scott, CEO at Rantizo, which works with drone operators in 35 states who primarily deploy drones made by DJI and fellow Chinese manufacturer XAG, told AgFunderNews: “The message we want to get across [to lawmakers] is about the impact this [adding DJI to the covered list] would have on farmers and rural communities where spray drones have been a phenomenal boon. Without DJI we don’t have US-manufactured alternatives that are competitive in terms of cost or performance.

“Rantizo is continuing to work in close collaboration with other industry leaders to advocate for support for US agriculture, specifically ensuring that farmers have access to the best spray drone technology to be competitive globally. We are also advocating for all drone manufacturers to work together on security and data protection standards.”

‘To truly outpace China, we need to invest in our own capabilities’

Bryan Sanders, president at full-service industrial drone company HSE, added that the provisions in the House bill had raised the blood pressure of US farmers using drones but had also stimulated an important conversation.

“There’s no denying the potential benefits of a robust domestic drone industry: we could see a surge of innovation, UAVs designed specifically for American agriculture, and secure supply chains resilient to geopolitical shifts. However, we must also address any potential drawbacks. Any transition away from Chinese-built technology must be carefully planned and executed to ensure our farmers are supported, our food security is strengthened, and we can effectively compete on a global scale. This will take years.”

He added: “I’m all-in for a thoughtful, measured approach. We need American manufacturers who can meet the increasing demand for drones, and we need a revolution in design, capabilities, and supply chains. We don’t have that right now. No more assembling Chinese-made parts in America and calling it ‘American Made.’

“To truly outpace China, we need to invest in our own capabilities. I urge lawmakers to prioritize funding American manufacturing and research while carefully considering the complexities of transitioning away from existing technologies. This will require collaboration between policymakers, industry leaders, and agricultural experts to forge a sustainable path forward.”

DJI: Four out of every five Agras drones used by US farmers are DJI models

In a statement sent to AgFunderNews last month, DJI Technologies said: “We don’t have specific market share numbers to provide, but a rough estimate suggests that approximately four out of every five Agras drones utilized by US farmers are DJI models.”

According to DJI’s new Agriculture Drone Industry Insight Report (2023/2024), governments in several countries have begun to liberalize regulations impacting ag drones, which have helped farmers reduce chemical usage, save money, and increase yields.

Further reading:

Ag spray drones battle heats up as US lawmakers target Chinese drone maker DJI: ‘This will be a job killer in rural America’

North Carolina farmer weighs in on China ag spray drones battle: ‘Everyone is contacting their state reps about this’

 

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