Global demand for non-military, commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is growing. Customers around the world want to use UAVs for a variety of civil applications, including cinematography, natural resource management, infrastructure inspection, and search and rescue operations. Exports of these systems to the world’s second largest economy, however, are severely restricted by U.S. export controls and licensing policy.
Nearly all commercial UAVs, other than model aircraft, are controlled for export for National Security (NS) reasons under the Commerce Department’s Export Administration Regulations (EAR). Export-controlled UAVs include any system that is capable of flight outside of a human operator’s line of sight or that has autonomous flight control capability. Key UAV components and systems are also controlled for export. These items require a license or the use of a license exception to be exported to any country other than Canada.
The difficulty for exports to China comes when exporters seek to obtain the required license from the Commerce Department. Under the Commerce Department’s licensing policy, license requests for exports of NS-controlled items to China face a presumption of denial if the export would make a “direct and significant” contribution to China’s military capabilities. The Commerce Department has determined that UAVs of any type (excluding model airplanes) constitute “major weapons systems,” subjecting most commercial UAVs to the presumption of denial. Licenses may still be granted on a case-by-case basis for less sophisticated items going to purely civil end uses, but a strong claim why the presumption should be overcome must be demonstrated. If exporters want to proceed with a proposed UAV export to China, they should closely coordinate with the agency throughout the licensing process and inform customers of unusually long license review times.
Military UAVs (those subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations) and those that have ranges meeting or exceeding 300 kilometers (subject to the EAR’s Missile Technology controls) generally cannot be exported to China.