OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | CHRIS FINK: Back off drones

Bans could hamstring safety, business

As a small-business owner and enterprise drone dealer, I've witnessed countless businesses and public safety agencies discover the benefits of drones. The growth of this sector has been truly remarkable, but it now faces a threat that could stop it in its tracks.

Congress and state legislatures are considering plans to restrict public safety agencies, government agencies, contractors, or others from accessing the most popular drones out there. Not only are these plans misguided, they have very real consequences for businesses like mine, our customers and the overall drone industry within the United States.

More than a decade ago, I got my start in the drone industry by taking photographs for construction sites near Orlando. After seeing how valuable drones could be for businesses and others looking to get eyes in the sky, I received an angel investment from family and started my drone dealership out of my apartment in 2015 to serve those who could benefit from this technology. Today, my business has a team of 27 in 11 states and supports the drone needs of thousands of businesses, state and local government agencies and universities, and public safety agencies nationwide.

Our customers come to us looking for the best possible technology to get the job done, whether that is inspecting power lines or solar panels, assessing the structural viability of bridges, assisting in search-and-rescue missions, or providing overwatch to SWAT teams. We help them navigate through the smoke and mirrors of the modern drone industry marketing and provide honest advice about what drone best fits their needs, which oftentimes is a platform manufactured in China.

The most popular of these drones are so easy to fly it typically takes less than 15 minutes of instruction to learn how to operate them, and they come with valuable features such as fully autonomous flight capabilities, night flight capabilities, six-direction obstacle avoidance, Remote ID, and more. They can also be flown, updated and unlocked entirely offline for missions that require enhanced cybersecurity procedures.

I think every day about what would happen to my business if politicians place restrictions on the use of drones manufactured in China. Put simply, it would be catastrophic for us. We would face an immediate drop in revenue, and our ability to offer support to our existing customers, grow, expand, and hire and retain employees would all be jeopardized.

But it isn't just my business that I'm concerned about. Worse, my customers would no longer be able to choose the product that's best for them. I don't want them to be forced to use inferior or more expensive technology just because that's the only option left, or even have to stop flying drones altogether.

For example, some of the policies under consideration would prevent drones from being used as part of cooperative agreements between federal agencies and their state or local counterparts. I've had the chance to witness firsthand how the Texas Rangers coordinate with federal agencies to help secure our border. They work hand in hand to use drones to provide real-time awareness and make decisions about where to deploy ground agents. Taking away their ability to share drone data with one another doesn't hurt China; it hurts our own border security efforts.

Closer to home, Arkansas recently passed a country of origin drone ban like the ones being considered nationwide. We did a financial impact study for one of my customers, a large state agency here in the Natural State, and found that it would cost Arkansas taxpayers more than $1 million to replace their current fleet of Chinese-made drones with the closest American-made competitor--including recurring software fees that would be required in order for the American-made drones to have basic feature parity with the current Chinese-made drones.

Not only are alternative manufacturers more expensive, I am skeptical that they could keep pace with the demand that's currently out there. Many of them are relatively new entrants to the drone space, and they don't have the manufacturing capability or supply-chain stability to scale up and meet the overall industry demand if drones made in China were no longer an option.

I ask politicians considering these plans to take a step back and think about what they are really trying to accomplish. If it's to counter China, there are ways to do that without hurting unrelated businesses and public safety. If it's to protect cybersecurity, why not focus on an approach that employs data, audit and encryption standards to guarantee the security of all drones equally?

Proceeding with the current approach will risk my livelihood, the jobs of countless others like me who have built drone businesses, and the safety of communities across the country.

Chris Fink is the founder and chief executive officer of Fayetteville-based Unmanned Vehicle Technologies.

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