On December 14, the Pentagon announced that both chambers of Congress had approved the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Now awaiting signature by President Biden, the bill supports $841.4 billion in funding for the Defense Department.
The announcement made huge headlines because it included a 5.2% pay increase for service members and civilian employees. But, more important for our industry, the American Security Drone Act of 2023 was piggybacked on to the 2024 NDAA. That bill includes language that would prohibit federal agencies and federally funded programs from purchasing or using drones manufactured in countries that are viewed as threats to US national security, namely, China and Russia.
Behind this provision are fears that drones manufactured in these countries can be used to compromise US security. For example, there have been allegations of Chinese espionage instances in which drones and their Wi-Fi capabilities have been used to “hack” into government installations. These allegations are similar to a 2022 FBI investigation that determined that Chinese-made Huawei equipment could disrupt US nuclear arsenal communications and recommended that certain components be banned from ever being sold or used in the US.
This ban stipulated by the American Security Drone Act of 2023 will affect directly the two largest Chinese manufacturers of small UAVs, DJI and Autel. According to Drone Industry Insights, these two brands make up 74% of the entire US market for drones.
But who is really affected by these restrictions? What will be the impact of these provisions on the commercial drone industry?
To answer these important questions, we reached out to an expert in the field of drones for public safety, Christopher (Chris) Todd, Founder and Executive Director of the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), the official home of the DRONERESPONDERS program. Chris is also a Certified Emergency Manager® (CEM), command staff member of the Southeast Florida All-Hazards Incident Management Team based at the Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Department, and Founder and President of Airborne Response Corp. based in Miami Beach, Florida.
“Basically, the top tier of affected users appears to be those public agencies that operate on a budget controlled by the federal government,” Todd said. “These includes agencies at the federal level, as well as those state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) jurisdictions with public safety agencies that rely heavily on funding and grants provided by the federal government. A second tier of impacted users will be federal contractors, critical infrastructure owners and operators, engineering and scientific firms, and other entities that seek to align themselves with the traditional ‘Buy American’ mentality supportive of US commerce.”
“Those who are expressing surprise and outrage that the ADSA was passed have clearly been asleep in the cockpit,” Todd added, “We saw similar initiatives emerge as far back as 2019 with the ‘American Security Drone Act.’ The writing has been on the wall, flashing like a bright red warning light on the overhead console for all to see. Legislation that combats the proliferation of Chinese technology has been one of the few areas garnering bi-partisan consensus on Capitol Hill in recent years.”
“There certainly are elements of the ADSA that smack of protectionism, and many have made that argument—to no avail. It’s somewhat like standing in the middle of the railroad tracks and screaming at an approaching freight train. At this point, the train is coming, and we need to prepare for what comes next,” Todd stated.
According to Todd, “Public agencies in Florida that previously used Chinese-manufactured drones for various operations have already experienced the impact that legislation similar to the ADSA can have on their UAS programs. In 2021, the Florida legislator directed the Department of Management Services to take steps similar to the ADSA, resulting in an ‘Approved Drone Manufacturers’ list for Florida public agencies and their contractors, since then the DMS has transitioned to a set of cyber-security standards mandated via a state-level rule change for UAS’s and banned those aircraft manufactured in a ‘Foreign Country of Concern.’”
The impact of these actions on drone operations has been profound. “Public Safety agencies in Florida have already been down this path , Todd said. “It was painful, even heartbreaking, for some. We saw law enforcement and fire service agencies who had spent years bootstrapping their UAS programs in existence—largely on the backbone of Chinese commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) drones—feeling like they suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them. Some of these agencies simply threw in the towel and ended their drone programs. Others focused on working on the problem, adapted, and are now overcoming the challenge.”
For Todd and others in the industry, prohibiting Chinese-manufactured drones puts local, approved manufacturers under extreme pressure to ramp-up production facilities and grow exponentially. This could lead to some manufacturers ignoring basic business practices that caution against rapid expansion without corrective and preventive financial guardrails.
“There are legitimate pain points in converting from Chinese-made sUAS to ‘Blue-ish’ type sUAS,” Todd stated. “The cost of the drone is typically much higher, the hardware is not always as robust, and the flight control software can be different enough to cause initial consternation for the remote pilot.”
Switching to new, unfamiliar systems can present a number of challenges for an organization or company. “Anyone who has ever migrated from a Windows PC to a Mac (or vice-versa) environment can appreciate this phenomenon. You are suddenly jolted out of your comfort zone into a new software requiring the development of new workflows with new motor skills and muscle memory,” Todd said. “This can be extremely disturbing for a remote pilot who has trained and flown substantial hours to develop proficiency with a certain aircraft type. Additionally, some companies are now marketing themselves as software companies rather than hardware companies and requiring high-priced software subscriptions to utilize all of the features of the aircraft. This catches many public safety agencies off guard and inserts a new pain point into the migration process.”
Many public safety agencies have spent millions of dollars on UAV fleets and training in the hope of improving safety and streamlining workflows that would help the communities they serve. With the passage of this bill, they may now find themselves on the wrong side of the law—and with a huge financial dilemma.
“Amplifying the pain is the need for these public safety agencies to then procure new sets of batteries and other accessories, reexamine their fleet management and live streaming software, reconfigure patrol and response vehicles, reevaluate any existing FAA Certificates of Authorizations (COAs) on file, rework their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), retrain their remote pilots and support staff, and essentially reexamine and often rebuild their entire drone programs to accommodate for the changes,” Todd said. “It’s not an easy task. This is really the part that people—especially the legislators—miss when mandating these changes. What results is an unfunded mandate that may leave a gap in a public safety agency’s ability to provide aerial support via sUAS.”
Given the amazing benefits that adopting an uncrewed aviation program has for any public safety agency, Todd and others believe that it is in the interest of all involved that a compromise can be reached to salvage existing programs and that a reasonable compromise is within reach to help these agencies transition to a more palatable solution.
“As painful as the transition can be, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We have seen several Florida public safety agencies such as the Florida Highway Patrol, Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, Miami Beach Police Department, and the Southern Manatee Fire Rescue District successfully transition away from Chinese COTS drones to ‘Blue-ish’ UAS aircraft. These agencies have certainly experienced the pain points outlined above but have generally been able to work through them and develop new solutions.”
Todd reported that transitioning to news systems has, in some instances, produced positive outcomes. “In many cases, they are finding out that the new aircraft are more capable than they had previously anticipated. We are also seeing several manufacturers work together with these agencies to help refine and improve both their hardware and their software,” he stated. “Good things are beginning to happen, and other departments are taking notice. Each week, we see more Florida agencies rebuilding their drone programs with sUAS that meet the new Florida legislative requirements. Florida is essentially developing the playbook for other SLTT partner agencies to follow when the full impact of the ADSA of 2023 takes effect.”