The Army abandoned DJI drones. Now they're getting stealth mode

The Army abandoned DJI drones. Now they’re getting stealth mode

Two weeks ago, the US Army pulled the plug on military operations using DJI’s popular drones. According to a leaked memo that’s been confirmed by multiple officials, the Army believes DJI’s products have “cyber vulnerabilities” — and decided to ban them all.

“Cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media from devices, and secure equipment for follow on direction,” reads an August 2 memo attributed to Lt. Gen. Joseph H. Anderson, the Army deputy chief of staff for operations and plans.

The ban was quite the surprise to DJI, which says the company hadn’t been consulted at all. “Despite our attempts both formal and informal, we’ve never heard of the Army what their objections might be,” DJI communication director Adam Lisberg tells CNET. “We’re as stumped by the Army’s actions as you are.”

But now, DJI may have a way to ease the Army’s concerns — or at least satisfy some of its other worried customers.

On Monday, DJI announced a new “local data mode” is now in development, which will let pilots fly their drones offline without a connection to the internet at all.

Lisberg says the mode has actually been in development for several months, at the request of a variety of customers with sensitive data needs — including at least one Hollywood filmmaker worried about their film’s secrets being spoiled ahead of release.

“They reached out to say: If the Army’s worried, why shouldn’t we be worried?” Lisberg relates. “We realized we’d better accelerate development of this feature.”

Lisberg says that while DJI’s drones don’t phone home with photos, videos or flight logs unless a pilot explicitly presses a button to send them to the company’s servers, they do ping some servers with their location so they can download local Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), updated maps and geofencing that keeps drones from straying.

Since the new mode will block all internet traffic from DJI’s app, that means those features won’t be available while it’s active. From the press release:

Because it blocks all internet data, use of local data mode means DJI apps will not update maps or geofencing information, will not notify pilots of newly-issued flight restrictions or software updates, and may result in other performance limitations.

In addition, the new mode will disable the ability to send photos, videos and flight logs to DJI’s servers — in case a company wants to keep their employees from inadvertantly syncing photos of a nuclear power plant inspection, as just one example.

For the record, Lisberg says the Army was only using DJI’s off-the-shelf drones, not specialized military ones. “We don’t have a military sales division, we’ve never developed special products for the military, and we aren’t developing one for the military now either.”

Since we still don’t know why the US Army objected to DJI’s drones, it’s hard to say whether the new mode will address their complaint. “We are not able to comment on whether we will continue to use DJI drones,” a US Army spokesperson tells CNET.

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