French drone tourist in Iran Benjamin Briere ‘facing spy charges’

A French tourist detained in Iran ten months ago is facing two charges of “spying and propaganda against the system”, according to his lawyer.

Benjamin Briere, 35, was arrested after flying a drone near the Iran-Turkmenistan border.

His lawyer Saeid Dehghan said Mr Briere could face a long prison sentence if found guilty.

It comes at a time of rising tensions between Iran and European countries and the US over Iran’s nuclear capacity.

Mr Briere is being held in a prison in the city of Mashhad and is in good health, Mr Dehghan said, adding that “his spying charges [are] because of taking pictures in forbidden areas”. 

The charge of “propaganda against the system”, the lawyer said, was the result of a social media post by Mr Briere that said “the hijab is mandatory” in Iran but not in other Islamic countries.

“My colleagues and I believe that these charges are false and baseless, but we have to wait for the judge to conduct a full investigation in the next few days and announce his verdict,” Mr Dehghan added.

Last month, France’s foreign ministry confirmed a French citizen was being held in Iran and that it was monitoring the situation.

It has not commented on the charges.

France is part of a group of countries – along with the US, UK, China, Russia and Germany – that say they are trying to restore a nuclear deal that was struck with Iran in 2015 but was abandoned by US President Donald Trump in 2018.

The Trump administration then reinstated sanctions that Iran has said must be lifted before it will agree to restore the pact.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear programme is peaceful, but suspicions by other nations, including France, that it may be being used as a cover for building a nuclear bomb led to sanctions being imposed in 2010.

Human rights activists in the past have accused Iran of detaining foreign or dual-nationality citizens to use as leverage against other countries.

The charges against Mr Briere come after British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe appeared in court in Tehran on propaganda charges. The charity worker has already served five years in prison in Iran.

Game of drones: Chinese giant DJI hit by U.S. tensions, staff defections

SHENZHEN, China – Chinese drone giant DJI Technology Co Ltd built up such a successful U.S. business over the past decade that it almost drove all competitors out of the market.

Yet its North American operations have been hit by internal ructions in recent weeks and months, with a raft of staff cuts and departures, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees.

The loss of key managers, some of who have joined rivals, has compounded problems caused by U.S. government restrictions on Chinese companies, and raised the once-remote prospect of DJI’s dominance being eroded, said four of the people, including two senior executives who were at the company until late 2020.

About a third of DJI’s 200-strong team in the region was laid off or resigned last year, from offices in Palo Alto, Burbank and New York, according to three former and one current employee.

In February this year, DJI’s head of U.S. R&D left and the company laid off the remaining R&D staff, numbering roughly 10 people, at its flagship U.S. research centre in California’s Palo Alto, four people said.

DJI, founded and run by billionaire Frank Wang, said it made the difficult decision to reduce staffing in Palo Alto to reflect the company’s “evolving needs”.

“We thank the affected employees for their contributions and remain committed to our customers and partners,” it said, adding that its North American sales were growing strongly.

“Despite misleading claims from competitors, our enterprise customers understand how DJI products provide robust data security. Despite gossip from anonymous sources, DJI is committed to serving the North American market.”

It did not comment on the other U.S. staff departures that current and ex-employees spoke of, although it told Reuters last year its global structure was becoming “unwieldy to manage”.

DJI, which has become a symbol of Chinese innovation since it was founded in 2006, is one of dozens of companies caught in the crossfire of trade and diplomatic hostilities between Washington and Beijing, like Huawei and Bytedance.

Staff sources and competitors say the company’s brand reach, technical know-how, manufacturing might and sales force mean it won’t lose its crown anytime soon in the multi-billion-dollar U.S. and global markets for non-military drones.

But a December order adding the company to the U.S. Commerce Department’s “Entity List” along with the closure of its R&D operation in California could affect its ability to serve the needs of U.S. customers, according to three former senior executives and two competitors.

The Commerce Department listing, enacted over allegations including DJI enabled “high-technology surveillance”, prohibits the company from buying or using U.S. technology or components.

The same month, Romeo Durscher, DJI’s U.S.-based head of public safety, who had played a central role in building the company’s business in providing drone technology to non-military U.S. government departments and agencies, left his job.

Durscher, a former NASA project manager and an influential figure in the drone industry, now works at Swiss company Auterion, a competitor to DJI.

He said he left DJI because he was disheartened by the staff cuts and what he described as internal power struggles between the U.S. team and its China headquarters. He added that the U.S. reorganisation complicated the task in dealing with the fallout from U.S.-China tensions and winning government business.

“It’s not an easy decision to leave the market leader that’s really far ahead of everyone else,” said Durscher, who joined DJI in 2014. “But those internal battles were distracting from the real purpose and in 2020 it got worse … we lost tremendous talent at DJI and that’s very unfortunate.”

U.S. SECURITY CONCERNS

Privately held DJI doesn’t publish sales figures. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated the American non-military market was worth $4.2 billion last year. Consultancy DroneAnalyst said DJI controlled almost 90% of the consumer market in North America and over 70% of the industrial market.

The December listing by the Commerce Department, and the prohibition on buying U.S. parts, may impact the firm’s mobile apps, web servers and some battery and imaging products, said David Benowitz, head of research at DroneAnalyst and a senior figure with DJI’s enterprise team, which works with industrial customers, in Shenzhen before he left last summer.

DJI said in December that the ban would not affect U.S. customers’ ability to buy and use its products.

The listing followed other official blows. In October, the U.S. Department of the Interior said it would only buy drones from companies okayed by the Department of Defense, which last August published a list of five approved drone suppliers to the federal government – four American and one French.

DJI said there was no “broad-based U.S. government ban on purchasing DJI drones”.

“Congress considered that approach last year and rejected it, because … such a ban would be challenging for many companies and government bodies that rely on drones,” it added.

‘WE’RE STILL PRIMITIVE’

Benowitz said persisting U.S.-China tensions and the push by Washington to support DJI’s rivals could see the company’s North American market share decline. He added that, while the federal government comprised a relatively small part of DJI’s business, its restrictions could have a “chilling effect”, with other buyers worried about tougher measures in the future.

“We’re at a point where there are too many market opportunities for one player to dominate,” he said.

Yet he added alternatives to DJI were relative minnows, though both policy support and security concerns over Chinese drones had brought them growth in the last year. Competitors to DJI include France’s Parrot and California-based Skydio.

Chris Roberts, CEO of Parrot Inc, Americas, said 2020 had been a significant year for the company in the United States, having been named an approved supplier by the Defense Department and won business from emergency services and security agencies.

Skydio announced $170 million in D-round funding last week and said it had a valuation of over $1 billion.

“DJI makes good hardware but we are still very early in the market, and very primitive compared to what ultimately should exist,” Skydio CEO Adam Bry told Reuters.

PHANTOM DRONE FLEETS

When Durscher joined DJI back in 2014, the company’s Phantom series was transforming drones from a niche hobby to a mainstream gadget. He said he was particularly drawn by the chance to bring drones into the kit of fire and rescue departments.

He said the technological advances of smaller rivals in the last year were tempting for some public-safety agencies, who might say “let’s go with this drone now so we don’t have to deal with the data security”.

He added that change could come as government departments and companies looked to replace drone fleets that are nearing the end of their life cycles.

A fleet is typically expected to last three to four years, according to Benowitz.

Durscher and several other staff compared DJI’s internal rivalry over projects to “Game of Thrones”, the TV series where rival factions vie for power. He said this resulted in a rotating door of Shenzhen bosses, and that he reported to 12 different managers in his six years at the company.

Durscher’s departure from DJI followed those of other key executives in North America last year, including director of business development Cynthia Huang.

Huang, who now works with Durscher at Auterion, said job cuts over the past year were the main reason she decided to leave. The losses in Palo Alto, Burbank and Newark had followed cuts made to DJI’s global sales and marketing teams, which Reuters reported in August.

“Some of the people that we lost in those layoffs, it didn’t make sense,” said Huang, who was hired in 2018 to take the lead in building DJI’s enterprise business in North America. “The continued exodus of talent was discouraging.”

Reporting by David Kirton; Additional reporting by Jane Lee in San Francisco, Alexandra Alper and David Shephardson in Washington; Editing by Pravin Char.

Malaysia’s AirAsia Group plans air taxi, drone delivery service

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s AirAsia Group Bhd plans to launch an air taxi service and the country’s first drone delivery service as the budget carrier seeks to diversify amid the coronavirus pandemic, the company’s CEO said on Saturday.

As part of the group’s diversification push, it also aims to launch a ride-hailing service next month as COVID-19 continues to hit air travel.

“The air taxi will have a pilot and four seats. At the moment, we have our team working on this upcoming service by AirAsia,” Chief Executive Tony Fernandes said at the Youth Economic Forum 2021, state news agency Bernama reported on Saturday.

The service should start operating in about 18 months, Fernandes was quoted as saying.

He also announced that the airline’s logistics unit Teleport, which is currently testing an urban drone delivery service with state-backed firm Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC), would conduct its first commercial delivery by the end of this year.

“(The) idea was brought up three weeks ago and now it’s reality,” he wrote on Instagram.

Fernandes said the group was recovering from the impact of the pandemic and had used the opportunity to accelerate its digital transformation, Bernama reported.

The struggling airline, which reported a fifth straight quarterly loss in November, has been seeking to raise 2.5 billion ringgit ($613.95 million) from loans and investors.

Last month, it said its 33%-owned Japanese unit, which ceased operations last October, had begun bankruptcy proceedings.

($1 = 4.0720 ringgit)

Drones could help find tidal energy sites

Drones could help cut costs of finding suitable sites for marine renewable energy projects.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are to be used in trials in Scotland and Wales and led by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

Drones will be used to film the movement of water at selected offshore sites.

Scientists will apply algorithms to the footage to determine the speed of underwater tidal currents.

UHI said current methods for measuring tidal streams rely on using survey vessels or installing seabed sensors which can be time consuming and expensive.

Dr Benjamin Williamson, of North Highlands College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, is leading the 12-month project along with colleagues from Swansea University and Bangor University in Wales.

The team will run tests in the Pentland Firth between the north Highland mainland coast and Orkney, and Pembrokeshire’s Ramsey Sound.

Dr Williamson said: “Measuring the flow speed and movement of water is vital for developing offshore renewable energy. 

“These measurements are needed to predict the performance and inform the placement of underwater tidal stream turbines or to optimise the moorings and design of floating turbines. 

“However, gathering these measurements is typically high-cost and high-risk.”

Aerial image of sea
image captionAlgorithms will be applied to films of the sea taken by drones

Meanwhile a team from North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute are helping to develop a new way of spotting marine plastic pollution from space. The research also involves the use of drones.

The waste has been detected using satellites before, but the researchers said this work had to be carried out in daylight.

The new study looks at how thermal imaging cameras could be used to find the pollution at day or night.

Tests using drones are to be held in the sea around Thurso in Caithness.

Drones could deliver Covid vaccine to Isles of Scilly

Drones could be used to deliver a Covid-19 vaccine to vulnerable islanders.

Bryher island
image captionDrones could deliver Covid vaccines to Isles of Scilly residents, including those in Bryher

Details of how vaccinations would be rolled out in the Isles of Scilly were revealed at a meeting of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust (RCHT).

Chief executive Kate Shields said drones were being considered because of “travel issues” to the islands.

The first Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus jabs are expected to be given to priority groups in the UK next week.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service said Mrs Shields told members of the RCHT board: “Where we have vulnerable patients in the Isles of Scilly we will be vaccinating them.

“Obviously there are travel issues there and we are looking at what we can do.”

She added: “I’m not sure if I should say this but we have been looking at using a drone to fly things to the Isles of Scilly and we are looking if the vaccine can be delivered like that.”

Fishing boat lies off coast
image captionVulnerable islanders will be the first to receive a Covid vaccine

The Isles of Scilly, which lie 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall, recorded their first cases of coronavirus in September.

There were 157 new cases of Covid across the two regions in the week up to 28 November.

Mrs Shields said the prospect of a Covid vaccine was “really exciting”, with vaccinations in Cornwall expected to start next week.

These would initially be given at a central site at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, she told members of the board.

The chief executive reassured residents that while the vaccine had been developed “in an amazingly quick time”, it had gone through “all the proper processes”.