The New Zealand Army says it has no plans to ground Chinese-made drones banned by its US military allies over cyber-security concerns fears.

The Defence Force bought a fleet of cheap commercial off-the-shelf hobbyist drones in March last year.

The Army envisions that over the next few decades, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) will become "as ubiquitous as section machine guns".

But the same drones, built by Chinese manufacturers Dajiang Innovation (DJI), were scrapped by the US Army last August due to "increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products".


The world's biggest drone-maker said in a statement that it was "surprised and disappointed" at the Pentagon's sudden decision.

A fortnight later, Shenzhen-based DJI announced a privacy mode to prevent flight data being shared to the internet.

In 2016, the Edward Snowden files revealed that American and British Intelligence hacked Israeli drone feeds and captured images from videos recorded by drone cameras. Some images appeared to show drones carrying missiles, The Intercept reported.

Militant group Hezbollah claims that it intercepted transmissions by Israeli drones, which allowed it to ambush Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commandos raiding a southern Lebanese coastal village in 1997.

The New Zealand Army has been training its soldiers on drone flying with a fleet of 26 DJI Mavic Pro units and a single DJI Phantom 4, bought last year for around $80,000.

An NZDF spokesman said they are used only in unclassified training space, never connected to the Internet or NZDF networks, and are not for deployment.

The DJI Mavic Pro, however, is connected to the Internet once, during initial set up.

The NZDF says there are no plans to scrap its DJI fleet.

"The NZDF has worked with our partners to assess the cyber security of DJI RPAS and has implemented the necessary policies and procedures to ensure security is addressed," a spokesman said.

DJI was highlighted as the market leader in small, Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) RPAS when the Army was looking for a "small and financially sustainable device for experimentation and concept development purposes and to allow NZDF personnel to get used to using RPAS in a safe and professional manner".

The quadcopter with a maximum 7km range can be bought at most high street electrical stores for between$1500 and $2000.

About 140 Army personnel have either completed, or half-finished, a three-day RPAS Operators Course run alongside Massey University's School of Aviation.

Used as "flying binoculars", the drones operate on the 2.4GhZ (Wi-Fi) radio frequency and are controlled using Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphones, without a sim card. No personal devices are to be used with them, and no recording of video or still images are allowed to be taken.

"They are a low-cost training and experimentation platform for the Army to understand better RPAS and how they can be utilised best when the formal RPAS capability is acquired," the NZDF spokesman added.

As recently as 2014, the Army said it had no plans to add drones to its surveillance and reconnaissance arsenal.

But, the New Zealand Army's 94-page Future Land Operating Concept 2035: Integrated Land Missions (FLOC 35), reported by the Herald earlier this year, says drones will become increasingly popular over the next 17 years, not just for armies, but for "civilians and irregular forces alike".

"Large quantities or 'swarms' of small and disposable remote or autonomous air systems, for example, may be used to harass and attack friendly forces, even if the enemy does not possess a conventional air force and has not gained control of the air in the traditional sense," it said.

"Irregular adversaries will compete with conventional military forces in new and novel ways by using improvisation to weaponise commercially available systems."