THOMPSON’S STATION, Tenn. (WKRN) — Jon Beal started up the Law Enforcement Drone Association (LEDA) after over a decade spent in law enforcement.
Recently, Rep. Michele Carringer (R-Knoxville) and Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) filed a bill that would ban agencies from purchasing any drone banned under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019.
“What’s happening is we have US manufacturers who are actually lobbying to push out their competition like DJI,” LEDA President Jon Beal said.
DJI is a Chinese-owned brand that’s arguably the most popular consumer drone on the market.
“About 70 to 90% of public safety agencies are using DJI or Autel, another Chinese company,” Beal said.
He argues the company makes a better product at a significantly cheaper price. For example, when News 2 met him at Preservation Park in Thompson’s Station, he whipped out a few drones in his fleet. One in particular costs about $18,000, when you factor in the whole kit (batteries, case, etc.).
For a similar American model, he said it could be anywhere between three and 10 times more expensive. “$50,000 to $100,000,” he said.
Beal said he understands the anti-Chinese sentiment, but he pointed out that all of the drone data can already be requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or just seen on Google Earth.
“LEDA is agnostic. We’re not saying our users or membership purchase one specific drone or the other,” he said. “We just want our agencies to be able to choose the best tool that works for them to be the best and most effective tool to be able to save the lives of their community members.”
The legislation likely comes from rising tensions between the U.S. and China. But Beal argues that tension doesn’t necessarily indicate the Asian country is using DJI to its advantage.
“We hear a lot of these legislators saying well, China’s spying on us with these drones,” he said. “I have yet to see any report of that.”
Without the best and cheapest equipment, many law enforcement drone programs may be forced to shutter. Beal cited Florida as an example, where the state only approved five manufacturers for state agencies to buy from.
“They had multiple programs across the state shutting down,” he said. “They couldn’t use drones anymore.”
News 2 reached out to Carringer and Stevens. Carringer declined to comment and Stevens never responded.
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said he hasn’t heard from law enforcement on the issue.
“I haven’t heard from anyone in law enforcement. They’ve talked to me about a lot of different things but nothing about that yet,” he said. “So, I haven’t seen anybody raise concerns to me about that being an issue.”
Sexton did point out that the bill doesn’t stop current law enforcement from using the ones they currently have, it just prevents any further purchases.
But currently, LEDA says the U.S. isn’t there yet.
“If the U.S. has a manufacturer that has a competing drone that has all the capabilities that this one has, everybody would buy it, there’s not an issue with that,” Beal said. “We want that competition to drive the market, we don’t want legislation to drive it.”
Ultimately, he said the ones who are punished the most are local communities.
“We’re going to take the tools from public safety agencies that will be going out and saving their lives,” Beal said. “Let’s not limit that, no matter what country they’re from.”