FAR’s Buy American Act: what drones meet the requirements?

These days, all sorts of U.S. drone pilots are seeking American-made drones. Some of that stems from anti-Chinese sentiment. Other ‘buy American’ motivations come purely from the desire to stimulate the U.S. economy and build up the U.S. as a leader in drone manufacturing.

That said, there are very few U.S. rules regulating where drones are made.

If you’re flying your own drone for recreational reasons or for a private business, there is no federal requirement around where your drone was made. Individual clients might have a preference (say, an oil company might not want a Chinese-made drone inspecting its pipelines). But if someone says the U.S. government has outright banned Chinese-made drones like DJI from flying, period (yes, I’ve heard people say that!), they’re wrong.

Even federal agencies aren’t necessarily required to buy drones made in America, in most cases. Sometimes even Chinese-made drones (like DJI drones) are okay for federal agencies to use — at least for now.

Maybe you run a small business doing contract work for a city. Perhaps you work for a county wildlife department and want to map the land. There’s no federal law requiring you use a U.S. made drone. Plenty of police departments, GIS teams and wildlife managers use DJI drones.

That said, it’s impossible to ignore the high interest in American-made drones. And some customers really are required to buy American-made drones.

The Buy America Act, and what it means for drones

If you’re required to buy an American made drone, it’s likely because of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)’s Buy American Act. The Act was designed to boost domestic supply chains and decrease reliance on foreign-made goods.

Of course, very few products are made 100% in America. Screws were perhaps made in Mexico. Mounting brackets perhaps came from India. What the Buy American Act focuses on, though, is where the major parts (e.g. sensors or processors) were made. 

And recently, the threshold needed for a product to be considered American-made under FAR’s Buy American rules have increased.

On Jan. 25, 2021, when President Biden signed an Executive Order that increased requirements determining what sorts of products qualify under (FAR)’s Buy American rules. Here are those new thresholds:

  • In 2022, the required amount of domestic content (as measured by cost) increased from 55% to 60%.
  • In 2024, the required amount increased from 60% to 65%.
  • In 2029, the required amount increases from 65% to 70%.

So, a drone could still have 100 screws (worth 10 cents each) made in Mexico, or four propellers (worth $5 each) made in China. That’s as long as, say, the onboard computer and sensors (worth $1,000) were made in the U.S.

Who do Buy American rules apply to?

The Inspired Flight IF1200A drone + Workswell Wiris payload.
The Inspired Flight IF1200A drone + Workswell Wiris payload flying over a solar farm fits the bill for the Buy American Act. Photo courtesy of Inspired Flight.

FAR’s Buy American rules actually apply to very few types of drone operators. In short, they apply to products that the U.S. government buys for its own use using federal financial assistance

That means drones purchased with a federal grant generally must meet that threshold (e.g. 65% of parts were made in America). And by 2029, 70% of parts will need to be made in America. 

But even still, there is no single “Buy America” statute. It’s just that certain statutes require those receiving federal goods to prefer products made in the U.S. And even there, note the word ‘prefer.’ 

There are all sorts of waivers and exceptions from the obligation to “Buy American.” That includes an exception if the U.S.-made version is not available at what’s considered a ‘reasonable’ cost. And as you’ll find, Buy American-compliant drones are far more expensive than their counterparts.

NDAA compliance and why not all U.S. military drones are American-made

The Buy American Act (BAA) is not the same as National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) compliance.

NDAA compliance refers to a federal law prohibiting the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) from buying drones and related equipment (like controllers, radios, cameras or software) that was manufactured or made by a country based in certain foreign countries. Those countries include China, Iran, Russia and North Korea. 

Because the DoD is held to such a standard, many other private companies also choose to only fly NDAA-compliant drones.

But while both BAA and NDAA-compliance are both related to where products were made, their spirit is quite different:

Buy American Act (BAA)NDAA Compliance (National Defense Authorization Act)
FocusWhere product was madeWhether the product is a security risk
RequirementMandates that certain purchases by the federal government prioritize purchasing goods manufactured in the U.S. NDAA Section 889 prohibits the Department of Defense (DoD) from procuring certain equipment from companies based in countries deemed to pose a security threat
How it achieves this requirementSets a minimum percentage of domestic content a product must have.The government buyer will conduct an NDAA compliance check
GoalSupport the domestic economy and U.S. job growth.Mitigate security risks of using drones made by countries tied to foreign adversaries

That said, a company can be NDAA-compliant and use parts made outside of the U.S. Plenty of NDAA compliant drones are made outside the U.S. Examples include the German-made Aaronia Aartos Counter UAS System and the Japanese-made SOTEN drone.

Of course when it comes to government drone procurement, BAA and NDAA compliance may sometimes be both required. This means a drone must be substantially American-made (BAA) and not made by a blacklisted company (NDAA).

Could the U.S. ban Chinese-made drones?

The DJI Mavic 3T drone. Photo courtesy of DJI.

It’s incredibly unlikely that the U.S. would ban Chinese-made drones from recreational or private business use.

That said, there’s a bill floating around that — if signed into law — would prohibit federal agencies from purchasing drones made by certain foreign entities. Drones from certain countries, notably China and Chinese government-linked countries, would be banned for federal use. That would have a huge impact on companies like DJI.

But don’t expect such a drastic change to happen anytime soon. Called the American Security Drone Act of 2023, Florida Senator Rick Scott introduced the bipartisan bill in February 2023. As of April 2024, it is still in the ‘introduction’ stage. That means it has yet to have been passed in the House nor the Senate.

But even that bill sets forth a slew of exemptions for agencies including the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Federal agencies like NOAA have used drones for environmental projects including monitoring whales, performing bottlenose dolphin “blow” sampling and assessing algal blooms. Alas, demanding that Chinese-made drones couldn’t be used for such use cases has been acknowledged as overkill even in the eyes of that law.

A suction cup tag just dropped onto the back of a North Atlantic right whale. The photo was taken by the drone that deployed the tag (Permit #24359). Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Ocean Alliance/Chris Zadra

Even the Department of Homeland Security, the DoD, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Department of Justice are exempt from the restriction under specified circumstances.

Though this is far from a comprehensive list of all American drone makers, here are some big names that have confirmed to The Drone Girl that they meet the FAR Buy American Act requirements.

Inspired Flight

The Inspired Flight IF800 drone + Sentera payload. Photo courtesy of Inspired Flight.
The Inspired Flight IF800 drone + Sentera payload. Photo courtesy of Inspired Flight.

Based in San Luis Obispo, California, Inspired Flight has a long history of American manufacturing. That commitment even goes back to its early days making simple UAV motors and speed controllers. These days, it builds full drone platforms, including the IF800 Tomcat and the IF1200A.

Its IF800 Tomcat aircraft is in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. Meanwhile, its larger IF1200 aircraft is in the $30,000 to $35,000 range.

Not only do its drones meet standards for NDAA Compliance and Blue sUAS approval, but the veteran-owned company also meets Buy American Act requirements.

Skydio

Skydio CEO Adam Bry conducts a flight demonstration for Deputy Secretary of Defense Katheen Hicks, and Doug Beck, Director of the Defense Innovation Unit. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza)

California-based Skydio’s clients include the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, and energy clients including American Electric Power and Southern Company. It designs, assembles and supports its drones in the U.S. using software developed in-house.

Note that the Skydio X10 drone uses two processors: the NVIDIA Jetson Orin SoC and Qualcomm QRB5165 SoC. Though Qualcomm is based in San Diego, it makes many of its chips in the Asia-Pacific region. And while Nvidia is based in Santa Clara, most Nvidia chip production is done by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited in Taiwanese factories.

That said, the Skydio X10 drone is NDAA-compliant and is still BAA compliant.

Skyfish

The Skyfish Osprey drone. (Photo courtesy of Skyfish)

Based in Stevensville, Montana, Skyfish makes its drones in America. That includes its Osprey drone, which many consider an American-made alternative to the DJI M30. In addition to meeting the Buy American threshold, Skyfish Drones comply with Congress and DoD supply chain standards. Its drones are also NDAA sec. 848 compliant.

On top of that, Skyfish is ITAR sec. 126.1 compliant. That means it ships its drones to countries with which the United States does not have a policy of denial of trade.

Teal

Mitt Romney Teal drone
Senator Mitt Romney visits Teal’s factory in Utah. Photo courtesy of Red Cat.

Teal is a U.S. drone manufacturer, which meets FAR Buy American Act requirements.

Its flagship drone, the Teal 2, also has other major stamps of approval. That includes NDAA compliance and clearance from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as a Blue UAS.

Teal is particularly interesting because it has a purpose-built manufacturing facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. In fact, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney visited Teal’s Utah facility in August 2023.  Romney is a co-sponsor of the American Security Drone Act of 2023.

Teal’s leadership has publicly supported the American Security Drone Act of 2023 — unsurprising given the boost it could offer the company by forcing more federal agencies to buy from American drone companies such as Teal.

“The American Security Drone Act, if passed, will lead to further investment in American UAS, accelerating our domestic industry’s ability to close the gap with China and build a strategic deterrence to future conflict,” said George Matus, Teal founder and CEO in a prepared statement in August 2023.

Vision Aerial

Vector Hexacopter (Photo courtesy of Vision Aerial)

Montana-based Vision Aerial has been in business for more than a decade, and its drones include its SwitchBlade-Elite Tricopter and Vector Hexacopter. The SwitchBlade drone costs about $14,000 and the Vector is about $21,000 for everything except the payload. 

Though note that payloads can add on a huge amount to that cost, and the payload itself wouldn’t necessarily meet the Buy American requirements. On the cheaper end of supported payloads includes the $750 Sony α6400 camera body used with the $250 Sony E 16mm f/2.8 Lens (Sony is a Japanese camera maker). But on the higher end, you might use something like the Flir Workswell GIS-320 Optical Gas Imaging Payload, which can visualize over 200 gasses that are invisible to the human eye. That payload, which comes from Oregon-based FLIR, costs an eye-popping $75,000.

(Photo courtesy of Vision Aerial)

Going back to the actual drones though, Vision Aerial designs, builds, manufactures, assembles, and supports its drones all from the U.S. It makes its unique parts at its factory in Bozeman, Montana, though it purchases drive components, flight computer and batteries from off-the-shelf providers which run Vision Aerial’s own software. That said, the company said it’s working toward a goal of raw materials in one door and flying robots out the other.

“We keep operations stateside for supply chain stability, to better manage quality control, and to provide the best service possible,” according to a statement on its website.

Government clients including the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Agriculture use its industrial drones. It also has oil, gas and other utility clients including Marathon Petroleum, DTE Energy and NorthWestern Energy. 

Michelle Madaras, co-founder of St. Louis drone company WingXpand
Michelle Madaras leads WingXpand. Photo courtesy of WingXpand.

WingXpand

Based in St. Louis, Missouri, WingXpand builds fixed-wing drones with a unique, expandable wing design that enables the drone to fit in a backpack, despite its 8-foot wingspan.

Its airframes are made in the U.S., though some compliant subcomponents are made outside the U.S. (but are still NDAA-compliant). For example, among the WingXpand-supported payloads including the NextVision Nighthawk 2-UZ (used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and the NextVision Colibri 2 (used for inspection, public safety and mapping).

NextVision is based in Israel, and its payloads aren’t cheap. For example, the Ascent Aerosystems NextVision NightHawk2-U goes for about $26,000 alone — and that’s before you add it to the drone.

While many drone makers design and assemble drones in America, they don’t all necessarily meet that Buy American threshold. Here’s a list of some major American drone companies that would not promise they meet FAR’s Buy American Act requirements.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t meet the requirements, but they weren’t willing to at least make the guarantee.

Freefly

Freefly drones are designed, assembled and supported in Woodinville, Washington. But there’s a big reason why this American drone company can’t claim to meet the Buy American threshold: it contracts out the manufacturing of components from a variety of non-restricted countries to keep costs low. 

And indeed, costs are low relative to other enterprise drones. For example, the Freefly Astro Base Industrial drone — including mapping payload and pilot controller — comes in at less than $30,000. Many other drones in this guide charge more than $30,000 for such payloads alone.

Freefly largely relies on Auterion Enterprise PX4 for its flight controller software, as well as Auterion Mission Control. The Auterion Suite handles online fleet management. Auterion is based in Europe with offices in Germany and Switzerland. Alas, that puts it out of the running for Buy American requirements.

Why are American-made drones so expensive — and do you really need a drone made in America?

It’s no secret that drones made in the U.S. are more expensive. There’s a higher cost of labor and parts. There’s also a higher cost of simply ensuring U.S. products are safe and truly up to standards via the NDAA certification process.

Given that, it can be far more expensive to buy a drone that officially meets Buy American Act requirements than a similar-quality drone that was made in, say, Germany or Japan.

“It costs a lot more to get those subcomponents made in the U.S., and to make sure they’re NDAA compliant,” said Michelle Madaras, President of WingXpand.

It’s so expensive, that even the U.S. government has carved out many exceptions to Buy American requirements. Waivers are often granted for situations including ‘the public interest.’ Other examples include if the cost of U.S. products is ‘unreasonable’ compared to equivalent foreign products.

Do you really need to meet the Buy American threshold?

If you’re looking to buy a drone that might have to comply with Buy American requirements, consider if you really have to comply. Especially as the threshold increases to 70% American-made by 2029, compliance is only going to get tougher.

In fact, many have criticized the act. Some opponents argue it raises costs for government projects (which just means more money coming from taxpayers). After all, American-made drones can easily cost double (or more) the cost of foreign competitors.

If American-made drones are outside your agency’s budget, seek clarification — especially if security is your primary concern. You may be able to apply for those exemptions, even with federal funding (though there may still be an NDAA-requirement). And, consider the purpose behind wanting to Buy American — because you might not actually need to buy American at all.

“So many people hear security, and they jump to the conclusion that it needs to be U.S.-made,” Madaras said. “In that case, it’s most important that you’re NDAA-compliant.”

Did you find this article helpful? While The Drone Girl makes money off of consumer drone sales like those sold through Amazon, we don’t make money off of sales of enterprise drones like these. So, if this article helped you, I would be so grateful if you could donate. That keeps articles like this coming!

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