Interior Department Halts Drone Operations Over Cybersecurity Concerns


The United States Department of the Interior (DOI) this week has halted the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over cybersecurity concerns most likely related to the use of Chinese drones.

UAS, which include unmanned aerial systems, drones, and similar technology, will still be allowed in emergency situations, an order signed by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt reveals (PDF).

The purpose of the order is “to better ensure the cybersecurity and supply of American technology of UAS procured for use and operation in support of the Department of the Interior’s mission.”

Component parts “that are remotely controlled and subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations” are also impacted. This includes hardware and software components used in the collection, storing, and transmission of data.

The order “covers activities conducted in furtherance of the Department’s mission, using Department funds, or for purposes identified in a cooperative agreement, contract, grant, or other agreement between the Department and another party.”

The DOI invested in a fleet of UAS for emergency management, fighting wildfires, conducting search and rescue, land surveillance, research data collection, and providing assistance to law enforcement, among others.

In addition to demanding that all UAS operations cease on DOI-managed lands, this week’s order also requires all bureaus and offices to limit DOI funds “from being expended for Designated UAS,” as well as to condition all contracts, grants, and cooperative agreement relying on UAS on that requirement.

In June 2019, Presidential Determination No. 2019-13 underlined the importance of domestic production capabilities for small UAS in terms of national defense, and the DOI’s order falls in line with it.

“With this Order, the Department is taking action to ensure that our minimum procurement needs account for such concerns, which include cybersecurity, technological considerations, and facilitating domestic production capability,” the order reads.

The order remains in effect until amended, superseded, or revoked. A review is ongoing and further guidance will be issued.

Last year, the DOI temporarily halted drone operations over concerns they could be used for espionage. The new order, WSJ reports, was issued on similar grounds and is mainly aimed at drones of Chinese origin — or featuring parts made in China — although no country has been specifically named.

Related: The United States and China – A Different Kind of Cyberwar

Related: US Panel Warns Against Government Purchase of Chinese Tech

Related: U.S. Girds for Cyber Threats From Iran as Military Clash Fears Ebb

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Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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