What’s Going to Happen with Exports of Commercial Drones?

In 2015, many believed to have seen an announcement by the Department of State relaxing drone exports, but a close look at the announcement suggests otherwise.

According to a publication by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, “The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 for
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (http://www.hse-uav.com/faa_modernization_and_reform_act_2012.htm) creates a statutory basis for the ‘integration of unmanned aircraft systems into United States Airspace.’”

Because commercial drones operate on a unique intersection between foreign policy and national security, the DDTC recognizes that any enhanced regulation is also likely to increase the proliferation of the exports – essentially, as long as a government agency says ‘it’s OK to do this’, even in limited circumstances, it is by and large creating a market for these exports. At first glance, many of the working groups and documents released demonstrate that the Department of State seems hesitant to decrease the restrictions. With the importance of knowing the end-user with these items, the Department of State is likely going to evaluate any of these export license applications with close scrutiny.

On the other hand, these regulations pose extensive barriers to entry for any US exporter wishing to explore this field. In its own study in 2014, the DDTC found that:

  1.  Industry needs clear licensing appropriate to the civil applications of UAVs and review
    criteria that can promptly resolve licensing requests with transparent metrics and timelines.
  2. There is extensive civil market demand for UAVs and development to adapt UAVs to civil
    requirements is very active. The civil market customers increasingly require longer flying time
    to take advantage of the core characteristic of unmanned systems – persistence.
  3. Both the defense and civil applications of UAVs rely heavily on COTS technologies. COTS
    technology keeps cost low, but also assures nearly universal global availability.
  4. Export Control Reform did appear to move some UAV-related hardware from the USML to
    the CCL; however, some of the terminology is still unclear, such as the specific definition of a
    “military” UAV that remained on the USML.

The white paper acknowledged that there was an increase in commercial applications of what were once considered primarily military capabilities: Infrared (IR) for border surveillance, multispectral sensing for environmental monitoring, communications relays for broadband communications in remote areas, and synthetic aperture radar for search and rescue. Taking into account the difficulty of controlling the export of drones, the State Department in a fact sheet laid out a new policy that drones could only be sold to “friendly nations.” Additionally demonstrating the fact that there may be business considerations in mind: a partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the FAA related to unmanned aircraft systems traffic management, and other Federal programs to deploy unmanned aircraft to respond to disasters and manage and monitor the environment.

There are a few exceptions: agriculture, safer infrastructure inspection, scientific research


  1. Global Trade Blog
  2. Defense News: Trump Administration 
  3. Drone Center