In 2019, the U.S. Department of the Interior grounded all of the Chinese-made drones it had deployed for tasks that included tracking wildfires, monitoring dams and managing wildlife. The move came amid growing concerns that using Chinese technology might create an opportunity for foreign surveillance of infrastructure and other key assets.
Now Congress is mulling an outright ban on U.S. government use of drones made in China.
But the need for drone technology is growing every day, and the U.S. drone industry is years behind its Chinese counterpart, largely because China has driven down prices and dominated the market. That potentially leaves a big gap.
It’s just one of the reasons that a drone technology company headquartered in Hartford says expanding the industry in the U.S. should be a key strategic goal.
“What I have seen out there can be replicated here or even done better,” said Barry Alexander, CEO of Aquiline Drones, and a former airline pilot who’s traveled thousands of times to China. “We need federal, state and municipal support.”
Aquiline was founded in Connecticut five years ago and employs 75 people. It manufactures the remotely piloted aircraft right in downtown Hartford, on one floor of an office block on Main Street.
Aquiline’s drones are used for jobs like inspecting power lines and other infrastructure, as well as in agriculture, mapping and law enforcement. But in the huge hobby market, as well as other areas of commercial drone use, it’s still hard to compete with the dominant Chinese.
Alexander has set himself a goal of hiring 1,000 people.
“We do have the potential to scale very, very rapidly and offer high-paying tech jobs for residents of Connecticut,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal agrees the U.S. overly relies on China for drone technology — something he calls both a security risk and a jobs issue.
“The Chinese are ahead of us in producing drones because the Communist Party has very proactively supported their industry. We haven’t here — we need to do it,” he said.
Blumenthal visited the Hartford headquarters of Aquiline recently, touring the manufacturing floor and getting a briefing from company executives.
“Drone technology is our future, and this company is at the forefront of really some of the most advanced kinds of uses that can be made of it,” he said.
And civil uses are only one side of the potential for the industry. “The future of the modern battlefield is going to involve drones on every level,” said Blumenthal.
The U.S. Senate just passed the Endless Frontier Act, providing a $110 billion investment in high-tech industries, including drones and artificial intelligence.
Alexander hopes that if the House acts, some of that investment can mean an expansion of his Connecticut footprint.