The 1987 missile treaty holding back America’s drone industry

130822105049-titan-aerospace-solara-50-drone-620xaThe civilian unmanned aerial systems space is heating up, but a Cold War-era export ban could keep it from taking off.

The unmanned aerial systems space remains thefastest growing segment of the global $700 billion aerospace and defense industry, but the potential high-tech job growth and $82 billion in economic impact associated with the burgeoning American UAS industry is already being somewhat blunted by a 1987 missile export ban created to stem the flow of nuclear missile technologies.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was designed to prevent the proliferation of technologies that could be used to deliver a long-range nuclear or chemical/biological strike, but its specific language also ensnares many large unmanned aerial systems in its prohibitive clauses — after all, what’s an aerial “drone” if not a cruise missile that comes back? That language, now largely codified in the United States’ own export regulations, makes it difficult for makers of large UAS–even those vehicles designed for civilian or scientific missions–to do business in with foreign customers while giving non-signatories like Israel and China an upper hand in the global marketplace for UAS technology.

“When the MTCR was first put together, the concept was to come up with an agreement to restrict the proliferation of missile technology,” says Remy Nathan, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association. It was a product of its time, he says, penned at a point in history when the Cold War was ending, the Soviet Union (and its nuclear stockpile) was dispersing, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was a tangible threat. “But the language never considered the development and potential use for UAS going forward, or for lighter-than-air vehicles as well,” he says. “It’s really an inelegant means of controlling delivery mechanisms for weapons of mass destruction through range and payload.”

These key criteria contained within the MTCR have now become a sticking point for large UAS manufacturers who wish to shop their wares internationally, where there is a huge demand for the capabilities that unmanned aerial systems can provide to militaries as well as civilian authorities and scientific missions. The broad language of the MTCR designates any unmanned vehicle that can carry a 500-kilogram (or roughly 1,100-pound) payload and travel 300 kilometers (186 miles) as a “Category I” system. Under the agreement, export of such systems and their supporting technologies is prohibited unless the exporting state can make a strong case for why it should be exempted–a case that governments rarely make on behalf of industry.

Where missile technology is concerned the MTCR has done an admirable job of containing long-range missile technology and the WMD threat it enables. But its broad text also places large UAS like Northop Grumman’s (NOC) non-weaponized Global Hawk (which is used by the U.S. Air Force for aerial surveillance but also by NASA for hurricane tracking and the like), civilian long-endurance UAS like Titan Aerospace’s upcoming Solara, or even the now infamous Predator and Reaper drones built by General Atomics, which can certainly be weaponized but have a much longer and more established record in more benign activities like aerial surveillance, border security, and even wildfire monitoring.

That has some in the aerospace industry worried that export agreements like the MTCR could hurt the long-term prospects of the nascent “drone industry,” which is poised for serious growth as restrictions on civilian UAS both in the U.S. and abroad are relaxed over the next several years. And while its true that much of the American UAS industry’s growth is expected to come from domestic and foreign sales of small UAS that don’t meet the MTCR’s Category I criteria, as the skies become increasingly unmanned large UAS are going to be big business, especially for an aerospace industry that can rely less and less on the U.S. Department of Defense for contracts.Read the full article…

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