The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College released the 2020 edition of their Drone Public Safety report, and found that 1,578 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency services agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones.
But what drones are they using? Primarily drones made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. Shenzhen-based DJI is largely credited for bringing consumer drones to the mainstream and is known for its iconic, white Phantom quadcopter drone, as well as its foldable Mavic drone.
924 of the 1,578 public safety agencies using drones are using drones made by DJI.
And even if the drones aren’t made by DJI, odds are, they’re still made in China. Yuneec and Autel, also Chinese drone companies, come in position two and three, respectively, for most popular drones among public safety agencies by drone manufacturer.
The first made in USA drone company is Physical Sciences. Physical Sciences is a company that provides contract research and development services. It’s the parent company of InstantEye Robotics, which is the maker behind the InstantEye, a less-than-one-pound drone that can be hand-launched, flown and hand-recovered by a single person in any weather. InstantEye Robotics is based in Andover, Massachusetts.
But even the InstantEye Robotics footprint in the U.S. is miniscule. Just 17 U.S. agencies use drones made by Physical Sciences (presumably the InstantEye).
The cost of drones made in USA to law enforcement agencies
The median upfront cost of drone equipment for public safety agencies was $12,000, according to the Bard study. (The average, which can be greatly skewed by outliers, was $28,964). That figure also does not account for maintenance or training costs.
And that $3,000 figure may provide some clues as to why more law enforcement agencies don’t use drones. Made in USA drones exist, but few exist at less than $3,000.
Montana-based Vision Aerial builds rugged drones designed to carry heavy payloads with long flight times. But their SwitchBlade-Elite tricopter drone (which carries payloads up to 5 lbs) starts at $9,450, and their hexcopter Vector drone (which carries up to 11 lbs) starts at an even heftier $16,950.
In short, American-made drones don’t fit many budgets. But InstantEye is one of the few that might. InstantEye doesn’t reveal the pricing of their drones on their website, but they look to start at just over $2,000. Thatt might explain why InstantEye appears on the list, while other companies like Vision Aerial don’t.
But still, the Chinese companies dominate when it comes to low prices. 336 agencies use a DJI Phantom (the Phantom 4 Pro costs $1,600). 246 agencies use a DJI Mavic, which start at just $499 for the Mavic Mini and run up to $1,599 for a Mavic 2 — all less than InstantEye’s drones.
What about federal public safety agencies using drones?
The Bard report does not include federal agencies or agencies with undisclosed drone programs. Here’s where it gets interesting: a number of federal agencies want to ban Chinese-made drones from being used in their departments, or at least are hesitant to use them.
The U.S. Army briefly banned the use of its drones because of cyber-security concerns. And 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). While they would not specify how many of their drones are actually made in China, an order signed in January by secretary of the interior David Bernhardt saying that the department’s current fleet of 810 drones would remain grounded indicates that, likely indicates that a good chunk of those drones were made by DJI.
Further, 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.
But not all agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Management and Budget are onboard with this. Some arguments are centered around there being no viable alternatives (DJI drone are widely agreed to be relatively low-cost and effective). Others have suggested that prohibiting government use of Chinese drones would prompt China to ban American-made products, hindering the growth of U.S. companies.
Could we make DJI drones in the USA?
Many people are calling for drones made in the U.S.A. In fact, a survey from 2019 found that a whopping 88% of respondents say they want to purchase drones from a U.S.-headquartered company. But with DJI’s estimated 77% market share, it’s clear that actually buying drones from a company that DJI isn’t that easy.
DJI is looking for a workaround so it, too, can be “made in USA.”
DJI in 2019 announced its new DJI Government Edition drone, intended for use in high-security situations by government agencies around the world.
That drone has features intended to address a number of concerns around using Chinese-made drones, including no data transmission, firmware update reviews and restricted hardware pairing.
DJI also said last year it would repurpose a warehouse in Cerritos, Calif., to make those Government Edition drones. Still, DJI’s U.S. drone assembly would represent a small percentage of DJI’s overall global production, but could help them work through federal requirements or restrictions.
But even still, DJI is a Chinese company.
What alternatives are there to DJI?
In short: few. The number of American companies making drones is small — and getting smaller.
To name a few, San Francisco Bay Area-based 3D Robotics was once a media darling and promised American-made drones, but leadership — among other factors — instead led to it burned through $100 million in funding before shutting down their manufacturing operations. Also in the Bay Area, Airware, started as a drone manufacturer, pivoted to software, but eventually shut down completely, selling off its remaining assets to 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.
Still, there are competitors alive today. Bay Area-based Impossible Aerospace targets public safety agents, but instead of selling them drones outright, sells drones as a subscription model with 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.
On the lower end of budgets, there’s Skydio, which promised its Skydio 2 drone. But due to the coronavirus pandemic (and because their products are manufactured in California which is under a shelter in place directive), Skydio isn’t currently fulfilling any orders.
About Bard’s public safety drone study
Bard’s data on drones made in the USA was collected primarily based on local media reports, publicly-available U.S. Federal Aviation Administration records such as Part 107 Waivers, and state and local government records such as annual reports, contracts, and meeting minutes.
The numbers also only track agencies that own drones (as opposed to agencies that rent drones, or contract out drone services to other companies).
“As such, this study should be taken as a barometer of the growing adoption of drones in this sector rather than as a definitive guide to every public safety agency in the country with drones,” according to a Bard memo.
Needless to say, 1,500 is likely a low estimate of how many public safety agencies are actually using drones.
Still, drone use is growing among U.S. public safety agencies. 500 more public agencies have added drones to their tool kit since the 2019 version of the report.