There are a number of reasons to buy a product made in the USA — supporting your local economy, potentially better customer service (ie. you can coordinate with someone in your own time zone and shipping moves faster), a general ‘buy American‘ sentiment and more. But in the drone community, there’s a bigger reason to buy from American drone companies.
In fact, if you’re operating drones for many branches the government, as well as some private corporations, it’s not a choice.
Many private organizations and government organizations have banned drones made in China, and some have banned all drones made outside the USA (more on what “made in the USA” actually means down below).
The U.S. Army in August 2017 temporarily banned its teams from using DJI drones because of cyber-security concerns. The Department of the Interior in October 2019 said it would stop using any drones made in China or made with Chinese parts (they are using drones for uses cases wildlife conservation and monitoring infrastructure). Other private organizations or other government arms have suggested or implemented bans on drones made from anything other that American drone companies.
And now, the Trump administration is reportedly preparing an executive order to ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones, citing a risk to national security.
Here’s the problem: the drones used by government agencies are overwhelmingly made in China. Of those, most are made by DJI.
“Through the purchase of billions of dollars of drones from China, we’re subsidizing the companies that would eventually become China’s prime contractor.”Spencer Gore, CEO of Impossible Aerospace
The Shenzhen, China-based drone maker reportedly has a market share exceeding 70%. For example, here’s the breakdown of most popular drones used by public safety agencies, according to the 2019 Fall Public Safety UAS Survey from Droneresponders (respondents could answer multiple times if their departments had multiple drones):
- 73% of public safety agencies said they use a DJI Mavic drone
- 47% use the DJI Matrice series
- 46% use the DJI Phantom series
- 37% use the DJI Inspire series,
In another example, an order signed in January 2020 by secretary of the interior David Bernhardt stated that the Department of the Interior’s current fleet of 810 drones would remain grounded. That indicates that likely most (or all) of their drones are made by DJI.
Spencer Gore, the Founder and CEO of California-based drone maker Impossible Aerospace, said the continued reliance on buying Chinese made products poses a threat.
“The very predictable thing happened in the market for toys, in that these Chinese companies were backed with massive state funding,” Gore said. “That put the other companies out of business, and allowed state-funded companies like DJI to establish a monopoly. This is China’s playbook. It’s brilliant. DJI products work. They’re subsidized. And they’re selling at a loss to crush American competition.”
(Editor’s note: DJI does not disclose revenue numbers, and Drone Girl is not able to verify claims that DJI drones are subsidized or sold at a loss).
With more than just state funding, but now an influx revenue incoming from average (primarily American) drone pilots, DJI has been able to continue building better drones.
“All of a sudden, what used to be a toy is rivaling the military’s best drones,” Gore said. “Through the purchase of billions of dollars of drones from China, we’re subsidizing the companies that would eventually become China’s prime contractor.”
But Gore isn’t so concerned about the regular, hobby pilots buying DJI drones. In a way, it is what it is. DJI drones mesh perfectly with a consumer drone budget and deliver a product that would be tough to convince your average consumer buying a drone for their beach vacation to buy. (The new Skydio 2 is great, but it’s still not as consumer-friendly as anything made by DJI, like the new Mavic Air 2).
Gore is more concerned about the U.S. government agencies that are buying drones made in China.
“With federal governments buying this, we’re building up China’s military technology, while starving American companies of business,” he said. “We should stop spending U.S. taxpayer dollars on foreign military technology.”
But even the government has limits on what it will spend.
A Department of Interior Mission Functionality and Data Management Assurance Assessment from July 2019 seeking out “inexpensive and highly capable aircraft” found that any drones “available from U.S. based companies were up to 10x less capable for the same price, or up to 10x more costly than similarly capable DJI aircraft.”
What does “made in the USA?” mean when it comes to drones?
“Made in the USA” itself is somewhat of a fluid term — and what it “actually” means depends on whom you ask.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, “Made in USA” means that “all or virtually all” of the product was made in America. That means — in the eyes of the government — all “significant parts, processing and labor that go into the product must be of U.S. origin.”
“There is not a drone in the world that is actually ‘made in the USA,'” Gore said. “In order to use the words, ‘made in the USA,’ there cannot be a single, important piece of content that was not made in the U.S.”
If the battery came from India, and the camera came from Mexico, then it’s not “made in the U.S.A.”
That said, there are certainly grey areas, and it can get confusing. With clothing, an item can be “Made in USA” if it was cut and sewn in the US, even if the fiber originated from another country or the yarn was spun elsewhere. And in the eyes of the FTC, “assembled”; means something different than “built.” That forced Detroit-based company Shinola to clarify their “built in America” claim by adding “from imported parts” to describe of some of its products.
But in the context of the current conversation around buying drones made in the U.S., Gore says people mean a slightly different version of the term “made in the USA.”
“Ask yourself, ‘was the intellectual property developed in America? Was it assembled here?'” he said.
For example, Sony sensors, which you’ll find on many drones are manufactured in Japan. Nvidia, which provides sensors increasingly found on drones, especially with obstacle avoidance, largely relies on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to manufacture the graphics chips it designs.
For drone companies using those products, and others like them, that doesn’t make them “made in the USA.” But if they use those products but the drones are assembled in the U.S., it often does allow them to fit into standards requiring products from American drone companies.
A history of American drone companies
The history of American drone companies is pretty bleak. Sadly for those seeking to buy American, most U.S. drone companies (especially hardware companies), have failed at what they initially set up to do.
In the consumer and camera drone realm, former media darling 3D Robotics, in 2014 promised a drone called the Iris. It launched to largely negative reviews. PC Mag called it intimidating, awkward and compared it to a “large, mechanical insect.” Their review gave it 2.5 stars out of 5.
A year later, the Iris was largely forgotten and replaced with another drone, the Solo. That drone suffered from missed product deadlines and buggy components
Eventually, 3D Robotics — which is headquartered in Berkeley, Calif. — burned through $100 million in funding before shutting down their manufacturing operations and pivoting to drones as a service. The company is much smaller now.
They no longer make their own drones. Instead, they sell a re-packaged and re-assembled Yuneec Typhoon drone (Yuneec is a Chinese drone company, and probably the closest any consumer drone company can get to calling itself a competitor to DJI). The version of the Typhoon sold by 3DR is called the 3DR H520-G.
3D Robotics complies with federal guidelines around using products from American drone companies because it is assembled in the USA under TAA guidelines. In fact, 3D Robotics touts that as one of its most prominent features on its site.
The 3DR version of the Yuneec Typhoon is also compatible with Site Scan, an aerial analytics platform built by 3DR.
GoPro’s drone division experienced a fate similar to 3D Robotics. The company known for its action cameras promised a consumer drone that could compete with DJI.
But GoPro’s Karma had a number of issues, including a major recall because Karma drones were falling from the sky. In January 2018, GoPro laid off between 200 and 300 employees, primarily from the GoPro Karma drone team.
Teal has pivoted since its first launch — though that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
Utah-based Teal was a consumer-focused drone company announced back in 2016. It was touted as a modular drone, enabling it to serve a range of functions including racing, thermal imaging and traditional photography.
Two years after its launch, Teal finally began selling its flagship product, the Teal One (Teal also launched a pared-down version of the initial product announced in 2016 called the Teal Sport, which started at about $500). The Teal One sold for $1,199.
The Teal One is no longer for sale, and the company has remained largely quiet. No request for comment to the Teal One’s contact pages were returned.
That said, Teal is exploring building drones for the government. A report from last year said that Teal was one of six companies awarded a collective $11 million to design and build drones that meet Army requirements (they have until the middle of 2020 to complete the prototype and see which of those six companies will be awarded with the coveted contract).
And Teal’s website indicates that it is now focused on building military-grade drones. Their website markets a drone called the Golden Eagle, which is built for short-range reconnaissance and situational awareness. Prominently stated in the marketing materials: the drone is mass-produced in America.
There’s no indication of when the drone will be available, other than text on the site that says “coming soon.”
Other major American drone companies that never panned out
San Francisco-based Airware raised an even bigger $118 million in funding over 10 rounds — also burning through most of it. Airware was launched as a drone manufacturer but, like 3DR, pivoted to software. Eventually it was acquired for an undisclosed (but likely relatively small) sum of money by French company Delair.
“Even powerhouse technology company Intel attempted to compete against DJI, but could not find success in a market where DJI could flood the shelves with low-cost, good-quality drones that were relatively reliable and easy to use right out of the box,” according to a September 2019 Droneresponders white paper.
And then there’s Mota, the San Jose, Calif.-based electronics maker, which bought the Lily drone brand. Both the original company, Berkeley, Calif.-based Lily, and Mota, disappointed fans over a massive Kickstarter debacle.
Do people want drones made in the USA?
For what it’s worth, people want to buy from American drone companies. Here’s a fascinating study from the Fall 2019 Public Safety UAS Survey by Droneresponders:
224 respondents were presented with four drones possessing nearly identical quality, capabilities, and price points. The only difference? One was from a Chinese-headquartered company. The others were from France, Germany and the U.S. 88% of respondents said they would purchase the drone from the U.S.-headquartered company.
And alas, 55% of survey respondents said they already have plans to buy at least one more drone in 2020…from DJI.
For what it’s worth, not all government agencies are adamant about sticking to U.S.-made drones. The Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget have both argued that there is no viable alternatives to DJI drones.
Other economists have suggested that prohibiting government use of Chinese drones would prompt China to ban American-made products, hindering the growth of U.S. companies.
Some experts have proposed an alternative where, instead of banning drones by country, drones are banned (or required) based on technical limitations or abilities.
“Drone restrictions based on nationality rather than security standards won’t protect our nation from cybersecurity vulnerabilities,” said Carl
Szabo, vice president of NetChoice, which advocates for free markets in technology, during an interview with Libertarian-leaning magazine Reason. “Discrimination against foreign-made drones means our country won’t have access to the best technologies. What we really need are cybersecurity standards for drones that apply to all manufacturers, enabling greater competition and security.”
The made-in-USA drone companies you should know about
There are certainly more American drone companies out there. But here are the ones that you should know about, either because they already come up in conversation often — or they’re relatively unknown and should come up in conversation often.
Headquarters: Moorpark, Calif. (U.S.) and Zürich, Switzerland
Auterion, which was created by the same people behind open-source autopilot system, Pixhawk, launched its Skynode product in May 2020 as a sort of “brain for drones.” Auterion has offices in California and Switzerland, and the Skynode is made in the USA.
Consumer drone companies
Headquarters: Redwood City, Calif.
Skydio builds a follow-me, camera drone that claims to be crash proof. Their latest product, the Skydio 2, costs $999. It first went on sale in 2019 but sales were paused paused due to coronavirus halting production (much of manufacturing was shut down due to California rules). They resumed production in California, and the Skydio 2 went back on sale in June 2020. Read my Skydio 2 review here.
Military and defense drone companies
U.S. aerospace and defense stalwarts such as AeroVironment, Boeing, Lockheed Martin have tapped into drones, but their price point is too high for most enterprise drone operations to take advantage of.
“This would have likely meant increasing their cost of sales while simultaneously lowering their prices (and thus their margins) from their existing lucrative defense contracts in an attempt to pursue and accommodate the modest budgets of most public safety agencies,” the Droneresponders report stated. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen.”
That said, here are some U.S. companies that build aerospace and defense drones.
Headquarters: Gainesville, Fla.
Altavian is a drone engineering and manufacturing firm founded in 2011. Last spring, the company was awarded a Short Range Reconnaissance Prototype (SRR) contract as a part of the U.S. Army’s effort to field a next generation drone weighing less than 5 pounds flown by a single operator.
Headquarters: Andover, Mass.
InstantEye is a less-than-one-pound drone that can be hand-launched, flown and hand-recovered by a single person in any weather. This drone is notable in the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College’s 2020 edition of their Drone Public Safety report: it’s the first non-Chinese company in a list of most common drones used by U.S. public safety agencies.
Enterprise and commercial-focused drone companies
Headquarters: Raleigh, North Carolina (U.S.) and Saskatoon, Canada
Draganfly has been in the commercial UAS and RPAS space for 22 years now. In March 2020, the company announced a “teaming agreement” for Draganfly’s distribution of AeroVironment’s Quantix Mapper systems to commercial markets. That essentially means that AeroVironment will provide Draganfly sales, marketing collateral, and product technical support for its Quantix Mapper system, which is a hybrid drone that can launch vertically and transition to horizontal flight. The drone is designed for use cases like assessing crop health or damage from storm, flood or fire, intended to make it easy to gather accurate images across a large area.
Meanwhile, Draganfly will provide e-commerce, enterprise and direct sales operations, and oversee development of a network of resellers and strategic distribution partners worldwide.
Headquarters: Santa Clara, Calif.
Instead of selling their drones outright, Impossible Aerospace operates as a subscription model, where clients rent drones via packages that start at $7,500. Impossible Aerospace CEO Spencer Gore said he believes the subscription route is better for most enterprise use cases because its engineers (also based in the U.S.) can better monitor and service drones.
Headquarters: Valencia, Calif.
The drone maker in March unveiled the RangePro X8P – Pixhawk, a follow-up to its previous drone, the RangePro X8, designed for industrial, first responder, and government enterprise data capture.
The drone is notable in that it was designed to meet federal government and Department of Defense (DoD) guidelines, and the company actively markets that it is “proudly engineered and manufactured in the USA.”
“We designed the RangePro X8P based on U.S. market and federal government demand, aligning with the pending U.S. Senate bill, S.2502, the American Security Drone Act of 2019,” said Bruce Myers, president of TerraView. “If this bill is passed it will ban federal departments and agencies from purchasing any commercial off-the-shelf drone or unmanned aircraft system manufactured or assembled in China or other countries identified for national security concerns,” We have been working with suppliers in the U.S. and other U.S. partner countries to provide best-in-class technical solutions and components that allow us to manufacture one of the highest-performing commercial drones in the market today.”
Headquarters: San Diego, Calif.
UAV America is a part of another company, Solute (mentioned in this guide as well). The drone maker is behind the Eagle XF and X8 UAV, and they also produce custom drones.
UAVA touts that their products “limit exposure to cyber vulnerabilities,” adding that they are closed systems that never require an internet connection. UAVA is a division of SOLUTE, which builds a number of technical products, primarily focused at government clients.
Headquarters: San Leandro, Calif.
VantageRobotics manufactures drones in the US for government, commercial and consumer markets– including the portable Vesper drone system with EO/IR. Their first product, Snap, is famous for being the drone that earned the landmark FAA waiver for commercial use near people with CNN.
Headquarters: Cerritos, Calif. (U.S.) and Shenzhen, China
DJI itself may be looking to be able to call itself a made-in-the-USA drone maker. DJI in 2019 announced what’s called a “DJI Government Edition drone,” intended for use in high-security situations by government agencies around the world (and inevitably to circumvent restrictions imposed by the government about products made in China). Major differences with the DJI Government Edition drone include no data transmission, firmware update reviews and restricted hardware pairing.
DJI makes them out of a warehouse in Cerritos, Calif, though DJI itself is, of course, a Chinese company.