The unmanned aerial vehicles are too valuable against Russian invaders for Ukrainians to be all that concerned about whether manufacturer DJI has close ties to the Chinese government.
Drones made by DJI, a $15 billion Chinese company, have become such an important part of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s unprovoked invasion that officials in the besieged country are setting aside concerns about the considerable political baggage that comes with them.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister and chief of the Ministry of Digital Transformation, who has become something of a media star in the last month for his ingenuity and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, posted photos on Monday of new DJI Mavic 3 unmanned aerial vehicles in what looks like the back of a van.
Federov said Ukraine had bought 2,372 quadcopters and 11 military unmanned aerial vehicles for $6.8 million. The money was donated by the Come Back Alive fund, which has been accepting donations for the defense of Ukraine since Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
China hasn’t chosen sides on the war in Ukraine and has refused to condemn the slaughter of civilians ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s put DJI and its billionaire owner, Frank Wang, in a bind. The company insists its drones are not intended for military use despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Ukrainians are also sensitive to the charges, true or not, that DJI is under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and could be collecting data on the use of its drones. “Every Chinese firm [is] under the Chinese government,” said the spokesperson for a non-government organization supporting the Ukraine military called Aerorozvidka, which uses DJI drones and has been credited with significant attacks on Russian forces. “We use them but we’re not going to make any ads for DJI.”
DJI has been accused before of having a chummy relationship with Beijing and has long brushed off those worries. It denies its drones send data to the Chinese government and stresses that users can turn off internet settings to stop information going anywhere. DJI has also had to fend off claims that its technology was used to support human rights abuses. The U.S. put the company on an export control list in December, implicating DJI in the persecution of China’s Uyghur minority. Americans were barred from trading in the company’s securities, a year after DJI was barred from buying U.S. technology. DJI has previously said it’s done nothing to justify the U.S. actions.
Fedorov’s office declined to comment on how the drones were used. The Ukrainian military didn’t immediately respond to requests for an explanation, though the Armed Forces have been pictured, on Facebook, with DJI drones.
“DJI promotes civilian drone applications that benefit society,” a DJI spokesperson said. “In addition to bringing new tools to aerial photographers and filmmakers, we see more and more firefighters, search-and-rescue teams, and other public-safety agencies around the world using our products to save lives.”
Earlier this month, Ukraine’s Fedorov called on DJI to shut down Russia’s use of drone-detection technology known as an AeroScope and to provide any information, such as the location and owner, of any Russian drones in Ukraine. DJI said it couldn’t do that, adding that it was possible it could shut down all of its tech in given geographies, but the action would affect Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles, too. It also denied an accusation that it was actively degrading the operability of DJI technology being used by Ukrainians.
As Victor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection, told Forbes, that while the government does have concerns about DJI’s links to China, “it’s a complex issue.” Zhora didn’t immediately respond to requests to elaborate on his earlier comments.
Whatever DJI’s policies, and regardless of concerns around its relationship with the Chinese government, it isn’t stopping Ukraine from acquiring the company’s devices to support its defense against Russian invaders, dragging DJI into the conflict whether it likes it or not.