TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are assigning $25 million to help police replace their aerial drone fleets after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration forced local governments this year to stop using drones made in China.
Under an agreement reached by lawmakers and the DeSantis administration this week, police could apply for funding to replace their Chinese-made drones. The Chinese-made drones would then be turned over to the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida to analyze what security risks, if any, they pose.
“We want to start over with drones to make sure they’re securely safe,” said the Senate’s appropriations chairperson, Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze.
The agreement attempts to remedy a rare conflict between DeSantis and Florida’s police, who loudly protested an administration rule that took effect last month forbidding state agencies and local governments from using nonapproved drones. The state said certain foreign-manufactured drones posed security risks.
But police from across the state told lawmakers in March that the drones weren’t a risk.
And they said that Chinese-made drones, particularly those made by the world’s leading drone manufacturer, Da Jiang Innovations, or DJI, were vastly superior and cheaper than the American- and French-made drones on DeSantis’ original approved list.
One of the drones from that approved list started a fire in a Palm Beach County Sheriff deputy’s car, forcing the deputy to pull over and drag out the carpet and flaming object on the side of the road, a department colonel told lawmakers.
The Legislature’s solution was blasted by one key GOP lawmaker, who vowed earlier this year to allow police more time to replace their fleets.
“It’s money, taxpayer money, that’s gonna get wasted — wasted,” Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, said of the $25 million plan.
He estimates that police and local governments have spent at least $200 million on Chinese-made drones. Replacing them will cost at least twice that much because American manufacturers have doubled their prices in recent months, Wright said.
Police, including in Tampa, have found drones to be critical lifesaving tools. They’re cheaper and faster than launching a helicopter. Having a drone chase a bad guy down an alleyway is safer than sending an officer, officials testified. Drones’ infrared cameras have helped locate missing people.
Fire departments and mosquito control districts have also found the Chinese-made drones useful.
Some federal agencies have forbidden the use of Chinese drones, but no one, including from DeSantis’ administration, has been able to say exactly how the drones pose a threat.
DJI’s drones cannot connect to the internet, police say, and use software prohibiting them from flying around airports and other critical places. A 2021 U.S. military study found no security risks from DJI drones and recommended them for government use. (The Pentagon later said the report was “inaccurate and uncoordinated.”)
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Wright said the benefits to police outweigh the perceived security risks.
“I’m very frustrated,” Wright said. “I’m very concerned about our law enforcement officers.”
The new rules around drones are likely to benefit America’s fledgling drone industry, including Skydio, one of four companies that made the DeSantis administration’s original approved drone list. Lobbyists for Skydio met with DeSantis administration officials in 2021, records show.
Several other states have placed limits on foreign drones, including Arkansas last month. But Arkansas is allowing police to keep using their drones until 2027, according to the online trade publication DroneXL.
Florida senators last week wanted to allow police to use their DJI drones “through their life expectancy,” but decided against it after “vigorous discussion” between lawmakers and the governor’s office, Broxson said.
Wright said the governor’s office was against it.
“I was told specifically the governor’s office took it out,” Wright said.
DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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