Drone Stakeholder Group Calls for Stronger Government Measures to Bolster US Competitiveness

How can the US drone industry become more competitive?  Industry stakeholders, concerned over the continued dominance of Chinese drone suppliers as well as tight FAA restrictions on the number and scope of US commercial drone flights, are stepping up  pressure on the White House and Congress to pass additional legislation and fund new programs to advance the interests of domestic drone manufacturers.

One sign of renewed pressure is the release of a new white paper by the Association of Uncrewed Vehicle Suppliers International, or AUVSI.  The group outlines a series of specific action steps that federal and local authorities can take to curtail the influence of foreign drone suppliers while incentivizing domestic manufacturers to expand the scope of their own commercial drone operations, especially in sensitive areas like law enforcement and critical infrastructure protection..

The AUVSI wants to see fewer FAA regulatory restrictions on commercial drone flights coupled with trade and traffic controls on foreign suppliers, which the group accuses of exploiting the US domestic market and endangering US national security.   Among the measures recommended are;

  • Federal subsidies to public safety organizations to help wean them off their current dependence on foreign (especially Chinese) drone suppliers. Some jurisdictions, including those in Florida and California, have invested massively in Chinese DJI drones, creating an unnecessary foreign dependence, the AUVSI argues
  • A stronger focus on technology development and support to U.S. drone companies inspecting critical public infrastructure, especially vulnerable power grids. Currently, just a few companies, including Percepto and Skydio, are in the forefront of these activities. AUVSI proposes a special $100 million grant program to allow state and local governments to contract many more private drone companies specifically for this purpose.
  • Trade and tariff restrictions on foreign drone imports that unruly weaken the position of domestic drone   The AUVSI has long felt that Chinese drone companies, in particular, gained an early unfair advantage in the US market by selling cheap drones subsidized by the Chinese government, making it more difficult for US companies dependent on private investment capital to get started and  compete on a level playing field.
  • Develop new programs to recruit and train a skilled drone workforce, including pilots, designers, data engineers and mechanics. Also, grant manufacturers tax credits to US companies that base their operations on US soil using locally recruited and trained workers.
  • Implement a new “green” UAS compliance program to assess and verify commercial drones for high levels of cybersecurity. This is especially critical in key areas like law enforcement and infrastructure inspections where foreign intelligence penetration could do the most potential damage.
  • Streamline Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulatory approval to minimize bureaucratic barriers to drone operational integration, with special emphasis on support for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights operating at greater scale to reduce costs and enhance operational efficiency.

AUVSI first unveiled the new white paper at a press conference in Washington, DC last November.  Members of Congress attending the event, including Senator John Tester (D-MT), Mark Warner (D-VA), Rick Scott (R-FL) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), came from both sides of aisles, reflecting the already considerable – and growing – bipartisan interest in the issue.  Attendees highlighted some recent efforts by Congress to address US competitiveness including the American Security Drone Act, the STOP Illicit Drones Act, and the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant Act but agreed that more targeted action was needed.

Senator Warner, at the behest of the AUVSI, has previously co-sponsored important bipartisan legislation to compel an expedited overhaul of FAA regulations governing unmanned aerial operations, especially its system for granting waivers and exemptions, which is widely viewed as dysfunctional. Stakeholders have long complained that FAA foot-dragging has left many companies without the authority to expand their operations more rapidly into critical commercial niches, undermining US competitiveness.

Thanks to growing pressure, the FAA in 2023 expedited the waiver and exemption process for BVLOS flights, especially for cargo deliveries, but only a handful of drone companies have qualified to date.  Meanwhile, progress on the development of a comprehensive regulatory system to integrate air traffic management for manned and unmanned operations continues to lag behind schedule.

In addition, while the Defense Department and some states have imposed “Made-in-USA” requirements on drone purchasing agreements, the White House and Congress have yet to devise an overarching strategy for promoting and supporting domestic manufacturers.

The AUVSI is clearly hoping that its latest initiative will spur additional action in these and other areas, but making progress this late in the congressional session – and in a critical presidential election year – could be difficult.  Still, a number of important new markers have been laid down for the future.

“AUVSI believes it is essential to advance security and competitiveness in a thoughtful way that respects existing investments while building toward a more secure, sustainable future that puts U.S. interests ― including security, the economy, and overarching values ― first,” the paper notes. “By addressing these issues in a measured manner, we believe we can help to balance competing interests and facilitate sound policy.”

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