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

DJI Mavic 2 drone. (Pixabay/Released)
March 24, 2020

Police in Chula Vista, Calif. plan to use Chinese-made aerial drones to urge the public to abide by the state’s coronavirus restrictions against gatherings of more than 10 people.

The police department has doubled its drone fleet, adding two additional DJI Mavic 2 drones fitted with night vision and loudspeakers to help with its crowd and business enforcement efforts, the Washington Examiner reported. U.S. officials have warned against using Chinese drones domestically.

In a March 24 press release provided to American Military News, the Chula Vista Police Department stated it was not actively enforcing Gov. Gavin Newsome’s statewide “stay-at-home” order.

“Police drones will not be used for random patrol, to follow or surveil residents going about their daily routines, or other invasive tactics which would hinder the freedoms we all enjoy in our community,” the department said.

The department emphasized that it has used drones for “public safety missions in response to emergencies” since 2016, and are now exploring ways to use them for communication to the public.

“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.

“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.

This article has been updated to clarify how the Chula Vista Police Department will be using the drones.