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CA city to use Chinese night-vision drones banned by US Army to enforce coronavirus lockdown

DJI Inspire 2 drone. (Sven Teschke/Wikimedia Commons)
March 24, 2020

Police in Chula Vista, Calif. plan to use Chinese-made aerial drones to surveil and enforce the state’s coronavirus “stay at home” orders, and to disperse crowds violating the orders.

The police department has doubled its drone fleet, adding two additional DJI drones to help with its lockdown enforcement efforts, the Washington Examiner reported. U.S. officials have warned against using Chinese drones domestically.

Chula Vista’s drones would reportedly be outfitted with night-vision and loudspeakers.

“We have not traditionally mounted speakers to our drones, but … if we need to cover a large area to get an announcement out, or if there were a crowd somewhere that we needed to disperse, we could do it without getting police officers involved,” Capt. Vern Sallee said in comments to the Financial Times.

The Chula Vista may also use its drones to relay messages to the city’s homeless, who may have less access to information about specific coronavirus orders.

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“We need to tell them we actually have resources for them — they are vulnerable right now,” Sallee said. “It might be impractical or unsafe for our officers to be put into those areas.”

Sallee said the coronavirus outbreak has rapidly changed the Chula Vista’s views of using drones for enforcement methods.

U.S. officials have said that Chinese-manufactured drones pose a risk of opening the U.S. up to Chinese spying efforts. In 2017, the U.S. Army ordered its soldiers to stop using DJI drones. The U.S. Department of the Interior also decided in October to ground its entire drone fleet, consisting out of mostly Chinese drones and components, out of concern the drones were relaying sensitive information about U.S. infrastructure back to China.

Spencer Gore, chief executive of U.S.-based drone company Impossible Aerospace told the Washington Examiner he is working to quickly equip other U.S. police departments with drones made domestically.

China reportedly introduced large scale drone enforcement during its coronavirus lockdown efforts and citizens said drones would relay messages to tell people to remain in certain areas or call out pedestrians not wearing face masks.

“What we saw in China, and what we’re probably going to see around the world, is using drones with cameras and loudspeakers to fly around to see if people are gathering where they shouldn’t be, and telling them to go home,” he said. “It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives.”

California was one of the first U.S. states to impose a state-wide “stay at home” order. Other states have imposed “stay at home” orders limiting nonessential businesses and people traveling outside their homes include: include: Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Delaware, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.