Drone manufacturer pins hopes for rising business on federal legislation kicking China out of ring

- Stephen Singer | Hartford Courant

RADeCO Inc., a drone manufacturer in Plainfield looking to capitalize on rapidly growing applications of unmanned aerial technology, says it’s outmaneuvered by Chinese rivals propped up by government subsidies.

Sen. Chris Murphy visited the company Tuesday to discuss legislation he’s backing that would bar federal agencies from buying drones from countries identified as national security threats. He cited China and Iran.

Keith Lovendale, president and chief executive officer of RADeCo, said the legislation, which is in the early stages after being sent to a Senate committee, would boost business for his company and others based in the U.S. that are now priced out of the market by Chinese rivals benefiting from support from Beijing.

“It opens doors for companies that do not bid for those jobs,” he said.

However, directing federal agencies to buy drones from U.S. companies is more difficult than it appears because the domestic industry needs to grow.

“My concern is if American companies are ready,” Lovendale said.

Murphy, D-Conn., said public-private partnerships could help bulk up the domestic industry.

“In the U.S., we trust the private sector to create a market, soup to nuts,” he said.

In addition to being undercut on cost — Lovendale said Chinese competitors can sell equipment for half what U.S. companies charge — drone technology also comes with security concerns because information obtained by the Chinese government could be used to conduct physical or cyberattacks against U.S. civilian and military targets.

DJI Technology, a Shenzhen, China-based company that faces U.S. criticism, said in a statement that banning or restricting the use of drone technology based on where it is made is “fear-driven policy not grounded in facts or reality.”

Such a policy would undermine U.S. companies because most of the electronics used in the U.S., including drones, have some parts from China, DJI said. It advocates instead for technology standards “that must be met before government agencies can use drone technology,” establishing a level playing field for all technology providers.

DJI said it invented one of the most capable drones on the market seven years ago, “launching an American drone economy that supports U.S. hardware and software companies.”

Murphy said Chinese drone technology “virtually cornered the market” in technology, with the Department of Defense “essentially held hostage to Chinese technology.”

A result, he said, is China and “other adversaries” have used drones to collect sensitive data.

"Instead of rewarding bad actors like China we should be investing in the development of a U.S.-based supply chain that creates jobs and protects our national security,” he said.

Murphy has previously pushed similar legislation. The Senate Appropriations Committee, of which he is a member, approved legislation last year directing the U.S. government to buy domestic-made drones.

The current legislation has bipartisan support. In addition to backing from Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., it’s supported by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Drones are increasingly used in applications such as agriculture, construction, crime fighting, homeland security, real estate and, in technology applied by RADeCO, detecting radiation at nuclear power plants.

Stephen Singer can be reached at ssinger@courant.com.

Original article at the Harford Courant, here.

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