Chinese UAS Fill the Void

My concerns relating to overly stringent export controls on UAS have been unfortunately prescient and it is time for the U.S. to lead not only in technological advances, but in policy. The former administration ran its drone program quietly – hopefully this administration will confront the issue head on. In a below the fold front page article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (July 18, 2017), Jeremy Page and Paul Sonne write “Unable to by U.S. Drones, Allies Place Orders with China.” The article is subscription-based, so I won’t link to it here. It is a good read and I strongly encourage readers to check it out.

Not only are they more accessible, but Chinese UAS are cheaper. “A Wing Loong, meanwhile, costs about $1 million compared with about $5 million for its U.S.-made counterpart, the Predator, and about $15 million for a Reaper, whose Chinese competition is the CH-5.” And even if our allies can get a U.S. military UAS, they contain numerous restrictions based on the “re-export” concept – which, in short, is the legal concept that the U.S. maintains jurisdiction over the item even after export.

I discuss export controls on UAS in detail in a previous post, so you can read the details there. What is the primary issue in regard to military long-endurance UAS such as the Predator or Reaper is the Missile Technology Control Regime, also discussed at my previous post. Mssrs. Page and Sonne go into the MTCR:

  • “Weapons makers have been buoyed by President Donald Trump’s statements of support for U.S. manufacturing and for a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that includes some items that were blocked by the Obama administration. The administration in June approved the sale to India of 22 Guardian drones, an unarmed maritime version of the Reaper.
  • Bart Roper, executive vice president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., said the U.S. is ceding the drone market to Chinese and others ‘due to obsolete and arbitrary restrictions.’
  • He expressed hope the Trump administration would revise policy to better promote U.S. industry.
  • In April, 22 members of Congress—led by Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents the San Diego district not far from where General Atomics is based—asked the administration to approve Reaper exports to Jordan and the U.A.E. They argued that the Arab allies in the fight against Islamic State are buying Chinese drones instead, and that export approval would save U.S. jobs.”

This tracks with an earlier story I wrote about Jordan being denied American UAS shortly after the horrific murder of their pilots at the hands of ISIS.

There needs to be a balance. Part of the goal of the MTCR and export controls in general is to prevent proliferation of means of highly destructive warfare. But on the other hand, we are fighting a daily battle against cyber warfare (and the resultant theft of our technology) and legitimate advances by other countries. They will fill the void if we do not.

I call your attention to an article I discuss in my Drone Law class at Antonia Scalia Law School (at George Mason U.). It’s entitled “Pandora’s box? Drone strikes under jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and international human rights law,” written by Dr. Stuart Casey-Maslen and published by the International Committee on the Red Cross. While I do not agree with all of the conclusions, it raises a number of good points. First, Drone warfare is here to stay. We’ve “opened Pandora’s box” and shown the effectiveness at lower cost of UAS in battle. Second, other countries desperately want to get their hands on UAS so they do not have to rely on us or risk a better-armed enemy state supplied by China. Finally, while not addressed by the author, I argue that his concerns are not new. Whether the railroad and industry in the American Civil War, the repeating rifle in the Spanish-American War, the advances in WWII or NCB weapons, the rules of war must adapt to each technological advance. Drones are a bit different though – the proportionality/discrimination determination is marginally different, but we are not talking about the advance in explosive capability – merely the means of delivery.

If you read through the MTCR, I am confident you will agree that it was written with ballistic missiles capable of delivering warheads in mind, not UAS like the Predator or Reaper. It is a voluntary protocol, not a treaty, so we can deviate, but it is time for the parties to consider how to best address UAS in this new era.

Apple’s Self-Made No Fly Zone

According to one report, Apple Computer is taking its penchant for secrecy to new heights (excuse the pun). Security guards are telling UAV operators that they cannot fly over the new headquarter building.

The article doesn’t go into the legal detail I am interested in, but I’m guessing the guards are on weak ground in some cases and stronger in others.

Commercial operators need to comply with Part 107 or 333.  The former, and likely the latter, would require specific permission since the headquarters is a congested, populated area.  Hobbiests are another story, however.  Recall my post where the FAA’s position is that once a UAV is flying, the he land owner has no say – even the National Park Service.

There is also generally applicable recourse against those engaged in corporate espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets, but that is beyond the scope of this article

No one has forced the issue yet as to private ownership of airspace near the surface but I wouldn’t put it past Apple to try.






A Big News Week for UAS

In Military News

Textron Systems (whose lines include Lycoming Engines, Bell Helicopters, and Beechcraft – some of my flight training was on an old but trusty Beechcraft Muskateer) has won an IDIQ contract with the Navy to provide contractor-based ISR support through Textron’s Aerosonde UAS. At 80 lbs with a 20 lb payload, mainly focused on ISR components, this falls into the small/medium-sized UAS category. Back in the day (2014 is ancient history in the UAS world), Textron used a 333 exemption to test the Aerosonde at MAAP’s site in Virginia. Here is another article about the DOD’s increasing budget for small-medium size UAS IDIQ contracts.

A 1930’s era Lycoming engine that I always check out at Udvar Hazy, since it is a basic but reliable engine similar to those still made today.
The Beechcraft Muskateer I took lessons on.

A little ITAR refresher: It has a range of 140 km but an endurance of 14+ hours, so this should qualify as an MTCR Category II UAS (remember, 300 km range is defined differently for the MTCR than for most marketing applications). The “Purpose-built Lycoming EL-005 engine” is therefore likely ITAR since it wouldn’t qualify under the specially-designed catch and release provisions.

An Israeli SF Reservist who helped co-found Duke Robotics has secured sales to the Israeli IDF of the TIKAD, a hexacopter modified to carry weapons and to be used in Urban Warfare. What makes this so innovative, beside for its agility and ability to keep friendly forces away from fighting in tight urban areas and IED’s? How they have overcome Newton’s Third Law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) – “through a system of flexibly connected plates, the TIKAD distributes the backward momentum in a way that keeps the vehicle stationary in the air.” They have been recognized by the DOD for innovation in counter-terrorism and we might see a contract with the U.S. military in the future. Stay tuned!

In Civil UAS News:

A story out of Arizona has been circulating about a man arrested and charged for flying his photography UAS over a wildfire. He was charged with violating a year old Arizona law (Arizona Law 13-3729) that makes it illegal to interfere with emergency services and he allegedly caused the grounding of 14 emergency aircraft who were at risk due to his UAS’s presence. The article references FAA restrictions, and while I can’t full up the NOTAM since it has since expired, there does appear to have been one in effect at the time. Even if there was not a TFR, FAA could go after him – and very well might still – for reckless operation if he was endangering other aircraft or personnel/property on the ground (it is also contrary to a generally applicable federal regulation prohibiting the interference with a fire on public lands43 CFR §9212.1(f)).

Students at MIT have developed a gasoline powered (5 HP) UAS that can carry 10-20 pounds of telecommunications equipment for up to 5 days and has a ceiling of 15,000 ft. It is apparently relatively inexpensive and is designed to bring temporary telecommunications services in disaster areas.  They are depicted in the cover photo for this post.

The first meeting of the FAA’s UAS Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on June 21-23 advanced key policies of concern to the FAA, industry and law enforcement.

Here is an interesting twist of the use of UAS over wildlife, which I have reported on extensively and is generally beneficial. In Australia – and by extension its territorial waters (generally 3 nm) – one must have a permit to use a UAS in conjunction with wildlife. The Australian Broadcasting Network, warned its readers about using drones to view the whale migrations. While there is no comparable law in the United States, it did remind me of my early days of Op Law in the Navy. The Marine Mammals Protection Act (MMPA), enforced by the EPA and protecting all Marine Mammals, makes it a crime to “take” a marine mammal is U.S. territorial waters or by a U.S. citizen on the high seas. You might think you are safe, because how is your DJI quadcopter going to “take” a whale, but think again. A “taking” is legally defined to include harassing a marine mammal – which could easily be construed as encompassing your UAS running out of batteries and landing on it or buzzing to close. Do not take this law lightly!

A drone video of fireworks at Montauk, or as locals say “The End.” I guess the word did not get around about drones and fireworks, but fortunately no one got hurt and there are no negative Fourth of July drone stories that I have found.