Ask Drone Girl: What drone controllers are not made in China?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about finding drone controllers that are not made in China. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

I am on a research project looking for drone controllers. Our funding requires that it not be made in China, and unsurprisingly this means that most controllers are unavailable to us. We are interested in universal controllers or one-handed stuff (not FPV at the moment). One of our prototype units uses a PS5 controller, but we have to change that out for our testing site visits. The other drones in our fleet run off radios and have dedicated controllers, but we are interested in testing alternatives.

-Brendan

Hey Brendan,

I know your funding requires a controller not made in China. And given that stipulation, I hope your funding is willing to fork over a lot of money. As I’ve outlined in other pieces on my website about drones made in the U.S., it’s just really difficult to come by many options of U.S.-made products — let alone affordable options. My guide to the best camera drones made in the U.S. can’t offer a single recommendation for drones that cost under $1,000.

Since your funding is targeted at products not made in China, you have a few more options, but not really. Most RC products are made in China. But, here are some of your options for drone controllers not made in China.

Vantage Robotics

Vantage Robotics Vesper Made in US controller
The Vesper drone from Vantage Robotics

Vantage Robotics designs and builds all its products at its headquarters in San Leandro, California (near San Francisco). The company primarily focuses on building military-grade drones that are NDAA compliant, and its flagship product is the Vesper, which is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone.

Vantage Robotics built its own ground control station called Vision to operate with Vesper. The company recently launched a successor called the Vision 2 — and this model (though it was designed with Vesper in mind) is specifically intended to act as a universal controller.

Vesper bundles that include the ground control station start at $11,500. If you want to buy the ground control station on its own, prices start at $4,450. While pricey, it offers features that — if you use them — can be worth the cost. Among the most notable features of the Vision 2 Ground Control Station: DoD-grade security and NDAA-compliant manufacturing.

Here’s what the Vantage Vision 2 looks like:

The Vision 2 Ground Control Station from Vantage Robotics
The Vision 2 Ground Control Station from Vantage Robotics

The GNSS system controller is powered with a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and provides up to four hours of battery life on one charge, with 64 GB of onboard memory. It supports radio, WiFi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2. One of its key features is a DoD standard swappable radio. Security is at the forefront thanks to its AES 256 data-at-rest and communications encryption, secure user authentication and option to wipe the system after a failed login. And though it’s fancy, it’s fairly durable too.

Some standout features of the Vision2 GCS include:

  • 2500-nit direct-sunlight and NVG capable 7” touchscreen
  • Swappable radio module with support for most radio options
  • Customizable Android 10 OS, capable of multiple network control
  • NDAA and Blue UAS compliant
  • Less than 1/2 the cost of competing GCS alternatives
The HereLink Blue from Union Robotics
The HereLink Blue from Union Robotics

Beaverton, Oregon-based Union Robotics also builds an NDAA / Blue sUAS compliant controller called the Herelink Blue v1.1.

It also might not totally fit your bill either as a universal controller. Herelink Blue is an integrated remote controller, ground station and wireless digital transmission system designed to be used with the Cube Autopilot, though it also works with the common, open-source platforms of Ardupilot or PX4, so it could work.

It’s also not currently available anyway (the company says it is re-stocking soon). It costs $3,699.

This controller also perfectly illustrates just how much you pay for ‘made in USA.’ The Herelink Blue v1.1 Bundle is in a lot of ways identical to the company’s Herelink v1.1 Controller Unit, aside from the fact that it’s manufactured in the USA of U.S. and imported parts. The Blue version costs $3,699, while the non-made-in-USA version is just $475.

That recommendation came to me from Michelle Madaras, the Chief Customer Officer and Co-Founder of WingXpand, a St. Louis-based company that builds an expandable, fixed-wing drone. Though, she also noted that she knows of people that actually operate their Blue Cube using an Xbox controller.

Of course, that depends on the investment and what you’re looking to accomplish overall. In your case, you might need that expensive, made-in-USA controller to get the investment you want. You might actually be able to get away with a different controller, depending on your use case.

“Unless you’re working for a public entity, often there isn’t a ‘requirement’ for NDAA compliance, but rather a preference,” Madaras said.

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