There are plenty of reasons to buy products made in the USA — supporting your local economy, potentially better customer service (ie. you can talk to someone in your own time zone and get it shipped faster), adhering to 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 federal branches of government (and sometimes even 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.
In early 2020, the Trump administration prepared an executive order to ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones, citing a risk to national security.
And while specific to just DJI, this is concerning for the entire drone industry: dozens of Chinese companies, including DJI, were put on a restricted trade list in December 2020 over concern’s about DJI’s ties to the Chinese government.
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 (something like the Matrice 300)
- 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. The DOI uses drones from five manufacturers — 121 of which are made by DJI. The other drones (made by 3D Robotics, Parrot, Autel and Birdseyeview Aerobotics) are either Chinese companies or contain components from China, which is why they’re all grounded.
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.
(Editor’s note: DJI is not state-owned or funded. It is financially backed in part by American investors including Kleiner Perkins, Accel Partners, and Sequoia Capital.)
Gore said he believes Chinese-funded companies is what puts companies in a tough financial spot.
“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).
Though, a spokesperson for DJI said the company’s products are neither subsidized, nor selling at a loss.
Still, with 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).
(Editor’s note: Since the time of the original publication, the Skydio 2 is no longer in production. The has chosen to shut down its consumer drone arm. Read about here).
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.”
Legally, slapping the “Made in USA” moniker on your product comes with Customs and Border Patrol responsibilities, as well as FTC requirements.
“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. Shipping Chinese-made parts to the USA and putting them together domestically does not qualify as “Made in USA.”
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 — that are (mostly) defunct
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.
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’s not necessarily 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 went quiet for a period, but then came out bigger and better than ever (at least from an investor standpoint). While their consumer drone is dead, they have a far more powerful drone now.
Teal has since pivoted to building military-grade drones. Their primary drone for sale is the $15,000 Golden Eagle, which is built for short-range reconnaissance and situational awareness, and it also makes the military drone Teal 2. Prominently stated in the marketing materials: the drone is mass-produced in America.
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.
And on the enterprise end of examples of once-promising drones that never panned out include InstantEye, which built a less-than-one-pound drone that could be hand-launched, flown and hand-recovered by a single person in any weather. This drone was featured in the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College’s 2020 edition of their Drone Public Safety report as the first non-Chinese company in a list of most common drones used by U.S. public safety agencies. Sadly, the company closed its doors on Aug. 31, 2022 “due to adverse business conditions in the sUAS market.”
Another once-promising company, TerraView, was based in Valencia, Calfornia and was known for its RangePro X8P – Pixhawk. The drone was 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.”
However, the company shut down on May 31, 2022 due to “supply chain and other pandemic associated obstacles.”
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.”
Today’s made-in-USA drone companies you should know about
There are certainly more American drone companies out there than the ones on this list. 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.
Consumer drone companies in the U.S.
Folks frequently want to buy consumer drones (typically under $1,000) from American drone companies, but the reality is, that few such drone makers exist in that realm. The only sub-$1,000 camera drone that’s also made in America and that I recommend comes from Skydio.
I’ve extensively detailed the best camera drones made in the U.S. in this guide, but the reality is, Skydio is the only one in the consumer category.
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.
(Editors Note: Since the time of this original publication, Sykdio has faced a similar fate as the other consumer drone companies in the US. In August 2023, when all Sykdio consumer drones went out of stock, the company chose to shut down its consumer drone arm. You may still be able to buy a used Skydio drone if you are set on owning an American-made drone.)
Military and defense drone companies in the U.S.
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.
Altavian (parent company is Teledyne FLIR)
Headquarters: Gainesville, Fla.
Altavian is a drone engineering and manufacturing firm founded in 2011. It focused on building drones specifically engineered to fly in tough environments — and to generate cost-effective, accurate data. 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.
Teal (parent company is Red Cat)
Headquarters: Salt Lake City, Utah
Teal burst into the military drone spotlight in 2019 when it became one of six companies awarded a collective $11 million to design and build drones that meet Army requirements. In 2020 it launched the Teal Golden Eagle, a $14,800 commercial drone platform designed for aerial surveillance.
Both the Teal Golden Eagle and Teal 2 drones are among only about two dozen drones on the Department of Defenses’ Defense Innovation Unit Blue UAS Cleared List.
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.
Nowadays, the company is mostly focused on building military-grade drones that are NDAA compliant. Its flagship product is the Vesper, which is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone. The company also is known for its ground control station, dubbed ‘Vision’ (and more recently Vision 2). Though it was designed with the Vesper drone in mind, it is specifically intended to act as a universal controller and could be a great option for people building their own drones who seek an American-made drone controller.
Enterprise and commercial-focused American drone companies
The following enterprise and commercial-focused American drone companies are listed in alphabetical order.
American Robotics (parent company is Ondas Holdings)
Headquarters: Waltham, Massachusetts
American Robotics designs and builds industrial drone solutions for rugged, real-world environments. It’s primary product is called the AR’s Scout System, which is a highly automated, AI-powered drone system capable of continuous, remote operation and is marketed as a “drone-in-a-box” turnkey data solution service under a Robot-as-a-Service (RAAS) business model.
The Scout System is the first drone system approved by the FAA for automated operation beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) without a human operator on-site.
In summer 2022, the FAA granted a waiver to American Robotics allowing it to not only operate its autonomous Scout System for research, development, crew training, and market surveys but also for full-scale commercial operations. American Robotics also has FAA approvals for fully-automated beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations enabling the Scout System to operate over larger areas with the ability to customize range based on site geographies.
American Robotics was acquired by Ondas Holdings, which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ as ONDS, in August 2021. Ondas is a developer of proprietary, software-based wireless broadband technology.
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.
The company is publicly traded on the NASDAQ as DPRO.
Headquarters: Santa Monica, Calif.
Flightwave is all about the tricopter drones. Its flagship product is the Edge line, which comes in both a commercial and a military focused model.
The first, the Edge 130 VTOL, ts a consumer-priced yet military-grade tricopter drone designed for long-range, long-endurance missions. It also makes the Edge 130 Blue, which s a military-grade tricopter for long-range mapping, inspection, surveillance, and reconnaissance. That upgraded ‘Blue’ tricopter for government and military applications weighs 1,200g, can fly for over 2 hours in forward flight mode and is Blue sUAS 2.0 cleared.
Impossible Aerospace (parent company is Alpine 4 Holdings)
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.
Inspired Flight Technologies
Headquarters: San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Founded in 2016, Inspired Flight builds drone for commercial and government applications such as aerial photogrammetry, surveying and thermal inspection. It made a big move in May 2023 when it launched a new plug and play solution that makes it possible to put the Phase One P3 camera easily on its Inspired Flight IF1200A, putting the first true Mavlink-based P3 integration on the IF1200A.
In June 2023, Inspired Flight announced a medium-lift drone called the IF800 Tomcat. The IF800 Tomcat is the first NDAA-compliant industrial-grade drone to deliver greater than 40-minute flight time while carrying a high-resolution camera or sensors.
Headquarters: Stevensville, Montana
Skyfish is known for its advanced autonomous work drone platform, which is a series of enterprise-grade drones and drone products. The platform includes not just two drones (the Skyfish M4 and Skyfish M6), but flight planning and navigation software, a data center and more. Skyfish drones support many payloads and sensors out-of-the-box, including LiDAR and thermal sensors from FLIR. Plus, they can fully integrate with the Sony Alpha series of cameras. The drones are designed for industrial work, like photogrammetry and infrastructure inspections.
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: St. Louis, Missouri
WingXpand builds a fixed-wing drone with a unique, telescoping drone design. The drone is a 7-foot wide autonomous airplane, but it fits into a backpack through its patented, expanding wings. WingXpand participated in Techstars Los Angeles 2022 and was chosen as a 2022 ‘St. Louis Arch Grants’ recipient. It was also named a ‘Top Company for Women in Emerging Aviation Technology‘ from Women and Drones, which was awarded at CES 2023.
In 2022, it landed a pretty interesting deal through the Small Business Innovation Research program, which is a U.S. government funding program, where it’ll be working with the Department of Defense.
Drone hardware companies in the U.S.
The companies listed below usually make parts, accessories for or components of drones, rather than the full drone itself.
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.
The company is massively invested in the open source drone community given its position as the largest open-source drone software platform in the world, building an ecosystem of software-defined drones, payloads, and third party applications.
Auterion is closely tied to open source drone community Dronecode Foundation, which is perhaps unsurprising given that co-founder and CEO of Auterion, Lorenz Meier, chairs the Dronecode Foundation. Kevin Sartori, the other co-founder of Auterion, is also a Dronecode Foundation board member.
Headquarters: Seattle, Washington
WiBotic builds all sorts of advanced charging and power optimization solutions for not just drones, but all sorts of aerial, mobile, space and industrial robots
U.S. delivery drone companies
Headquarters: Los Angeles, California
A2Z Drone Delivery began as a drone delivery project at Brown University back in 2016. These days, it’s based in Los Angeles, Calif., and the company sells off-the-shelf delivery drones, which you can buy to un your own delivery drone service.
Its primary product is the RDSX Pelican, a long-range delivery drone with the range and payload capacity to handle up to 5 kg payloads on up to 40 km routes. Prices start at $29,000 for the drone.
Headquarters: Seattle metro area, Washington
Amazon’s drone deliveries are a bit hit and miss. Amazon was among the first companies out there to ever suggest the possibility of delivering food and other onsumer products directly to peoples’ homes (back in 2013). But Amazon, which in 2022 announced delivery sites in College Station, Texas and Lockeford, California, had served fewer than 10 households in its first month or so after the announcement. Meanwhile, it also laid off more than half the employees at those locations.
Headquarters: South San Francisco, Calif.
Zipline is considered the largest drone service provider in the world, and is a drone delivery giant. Zipline largely started operations of medical deliveries to rural parts of Africa, but the company has been expanding into more complicated airspace, including a relatively recent U.S. expansion to deliver COVID-19 related supplies to North Carolina hospitals and other medical facilities. It also has partnerships with major retailers including Walmart, and in October 2022 launched drone deliveries in Utah with its partner Intermountain Healthcare.
Wing (sibling company of Google)
Headquarters: Mountain View, Calif.
Wing is the drone delivery company that’s owned by Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google. Wing is generally considered the second-largest drone delivery company in the world behind Zipline. But unlike Zipline, Wing is mostly focused on deliveries of consumer products (typically food or other small grocery-type items) directly to people’s houses. That includes a recent Wing partnership with DoorDash to deliver food and other convenience items via drone and a partnership with Walgreens in Frisco, Texas.
What about DJI?
Headquarters: Cerritos, Calif. (U.S.) and Shenzhen, China
In some ways, DJI itself looks 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.
Of course, there are many more American drone companies out there, and this is far from a comprehensive list.