Coming U.S. Policy Change Will Free Small Drone Exports

 - May 6, 2015, 7:59 AM
Navmar Applied Sciences Corp. displayed some of its offerings at the Unmanned Systems conference in Atlanta. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. State Department made headlines earlier this year when it relaxed its export policy on the sale of military and commercial UAVs to other countries. But lesser known is a policy change that will liberalize the sale of small, commercial UAVs outside of the U.S., an attorney specializing in export policy told the Unmanned Systems conference on May 5. “A new approach and language are coming for the export of commercial UAV systems,” said Eric McClafferty, chairman of the international trade and customs practice of Kelley Drye & Warren.

The policy change relating to commercial UAV exports was agreed by a grouping of 41 nations called the Wassenaar Arrangement, which seeks to promote international security and stability in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies. At the group’s annual plenary meeting, held in December in Vienna, participating nations agreed to new export controls in areas including spacecraft equipment and technology for fly-by-wire and fly-by-light systems. “In addition, significant reviews of several categories resulted in the deletion of obsolete controls relating to vessels and in refined controls on unmanned aerial vehicles, specifically taking note of the substantial progress of technology in that area,” according to the plenary chairman’s statement.

Export policy changes will become law in the U.S. when the Department of Commerce amends its Export Administration Regulations in the coming months, McClafferty said. Under the new standard, commercial UAVs with a flight endurance of less than 30 minutes will no longer require an export license from the department. Commercial UAVs with a flight endurance between 30 minutes and an hour will only be subject to the license requirement if the machines can fly in wind gusts of 25 knots or more. Controls on autopilots and related technology will also be relaxed, according to a Kelley Drye summary.

The policy change could have more import than the State Department’s February 17 announcement that it will evaluate the sale of military and commercial unmanned aircraft systems to foreign nations on a case-by-case basis. That consideration comes with a “strong presumption of denial” and is “opaque” in that the criteria for approving those exports remain classified, McClafferty said. Meanwhile, relaxed rules for exporting small UAVs lessen the possibility of incurring civil penalties for violations that can range to $250,000 for an individual and $1 million for a company.