How France’s Parrot had to satisfy a US Army wary of foreign drones

The lines between consumer, enterprise, and now military drones continue to blur. This week, French drone maker Parrot announced that it’s in the final stage of competition to provide short range reconnaissance drones to the US Army. Getting to that stage required a lot of assurances for a government wary of foreign drone makers.

The company is best known over the years for its consumer models, such as the Mambo and Bebop. But beginning with the Anafi in 2018, Parrot has had a platform that could straddle both consumer and enterprise. And now, it will serve as the basis for a military model as well. (The company would not share an image of its military drone, but says it is based on the Anafi.)

Made in USA

Most telling in Parrot’s announcement is the lengths that the Paris-based company must go to satisfy a wary US government. It first had to find a US manufacturing partner, NEOTech, to build the models domestically. Furthermore, all software is to be installed at the US facility, “ensuring high IP protection with no data dissemination.” The release also emphasizes that the drone is “designed with carefully selected components.”

All these actions nod to the US government’s increasing discomfort with Chinese-made drones, including from world market leader DJI. The fear is that the Chinese government may use DJI as a back door to collect data on its drone users — a claim DJI strenuously rejects.

Avoiding foreign drone bans

It’s a smart move on the part of Parrot and other manufacturers to check all the boxes of US security concerns. They are likely to grow. In January, the US Department of the Interior issued an order against the use of drones made in China or built with Chinese-made components. As a result, DOI grounded its fleet of about 800 drones. Then in March, news outlets reported that the Trump administration was preparing an executive order to ban drones made in China.

That order is yet to materialize. But there are yet more possible roadblocks to non-US drone makers. Legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate would seek to ban federal agencies from buying Chinese-made drones and drones using Chinese-made components. So to be safe, Parrot and its US partner really do have to carefully select their components. And that’s hard to do, given China’s dominant role in the entire industry.



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Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.