Need to Know - Export Controls


As outlined in this early post by Hai Tran, it has been reported that Australian based UAV manufacturer Cyber Technology found themselves in a spot of bother with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service when they attempted to export UAVs out of the country on two occasions.

Excerpts from describe the two incidents:

"The shipment was opened and found to contain two 'CyberQuad' mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), two low light CCD cameras, two hand held UAV controllers, two pairs of video glasses, one power management system with four batteries, two chargers, one mains power supply, two portable video terminals and one rugged Pelican brand transportable case" a spokesman said.


Just one month later, a Cyber Technology employee was caught trying to travel overseas with the goods in their baggage

It is obviously no surprise to learn that there are export controls for products relevant to defence applications here in Australia, but it seemed unclear to me where the line is drawn.  What is export controlled and what isn't?  Where is the line between RC Model aircraft, Civilian focused Remotely Piloted Aerial System and Military Hardware?  How does a company or individual interested only in recreational and civilian use of UAVs steer clear of such restrictions?  Is it even possible?

Most of us would be aware of complications faced by US based companies, like 3DR and sparkfun, navigating export restrictions. Export restrictions don't appear to be limited to RTF systems either, with basic and seemingly harmless items like stepper motor controllers which are designed for laughably innocuous things like egg painters apparently affected also.  Yet there appears to be no restriction on things like this, which doesn't seem to make sense?  And what about kickstarter campaigns like the Pocket Drone, Hexo+ and AirDog, and their 5,000-odd backers? How export restrictions will impact on the fulfilment of rewards to backers of these campaigns remains to be seen. Each of these campaigns are international, and it appears that no warnings or disclaimers have been publically issued to backers referring to potential export restrictions. It seems reasonable to assume that there would be a quantity of backers based in countries that may not necessarily be on the unrestricted list (which can be found by clicking on the top left of this page).  The Pocket Drone for example remains yet to ship, but is being assembled in the US. It seems logical that AirDroids would have a plan to ensure fulfilment of all relevant rewards, as refunding dozens, possibly hundreds of backers could cost them heavily - especially when you consider the commission taken by Kickstarter (I wonder whether that gets refunded in the case of a refund in the event that a reward is unfulfillable). Perhaps they plan to fill a container, ship it to Hong Kong and distribute to their backers from there. It seems unlikely, but that would certainly be a laugh if they were forced to do so (but an interesting example of the great lengths a company might be forced to go to create jobs in the US)!

When comparing the above examples of export restricted products in the US with the products offered by Cyper Technology, there are obviously some distinct differences.  Cyper Technology offer 4 different complete aerial systems, each of which are uniquely developed for use in specific applications.

The CyperQuad is a quad copter which is optimised for carrying a range of payload options.  It specifically lists a range of Military uses among it's intended applications - which include Urban Surveillance, Over the hill reconnaissance, communications relay node as well as Mine Detection and target detection.  But it's list of intended use applications also includes recreational uses including aerial photography and FPV.

The CyperEyeII is a medium range endurance (long endurance by our standards) unmanned platform that is designed to carry a payload up to 20kg for up to 10 hours. It's capabilities are quite advanced and it lists both military and civilian uses, but no recreational uses.

Then there is the CyBird and CyberWraith, which are both aimed solely at defence specific applications.

Looking at these systems as a group, and Cyper Technology as a company, no one would argue the relevance of export control. The same can be said about many of the big players like Advanced VTOL Technologies, VTOL Aerospace, Codarra Advanced Systems, Unmanned Systems Australia and Aerosonde. But what about other manufacturers which blur the line like the Flamingo from Silvertone, or those focused squarely on the civilian market like the Scarab series from MuiltiWiiCopter, the GoFour from Aerobot or the original Mini H Quad from Blackout?  Where is the line draw? Or is it all export controlled?  Does this affect all manufacturers and resellers?  And how onerous is the current permit process?

The DSGL (Defence and Strategic Goods List) Categories lists UAVs under Part 2 of the categories list. As identified by Robert Palmer, the definition for what is controlled can be found in section 9A012 on page 246 of the Defence and Strategic Goods List Amendment 2011 (No. 1) - F2013C00051.

9A012 "Unmanned aerial vehicles" ("UAVs"), associated systems, equipment and components, as follows:

a. "UAVs" having any of the following:
                1. An autonomous flight control and navigation capability (e.g., an autopilot with an Inertial Navigation System); or
                2. Capability of controlled-flight out of the direct vision range involving a human operator (e.g., televisual remote control);

b. Associated systems, equipment and components, as follows:
                1. Equipment specially designed for remotely controlling the "UAVs" specified in 9A012.a.;
                2. Systems for navigation, attitude, guidance or control, other than those specified in 7A and specially designed to provide autonomous flight control or navigation capability to "UAVs" specified in 9A012.a.;
                3. Equipment and components, specially designed to convert a manned "aircraft" to a "UAV" specified in 9A012.a.;
                4. Air breathing reciprocating or rotary internal combustion type engines, specially designed or modified to propel "UAVs" at altitudes above 50,000 feet (15,240 metres).

The DSGL also specifically identifies a long list of other items relevant to DIYDroners in the Dual Use Goods section including radio equipment, telemetry and telecontrol equipment, magnetometers, accelerometers, inertial navigation systems, flight control systems and robots. Additional notes stipulate that materials, software and technology related to controlled goods are also controlled.

By these definitions it seems that any APM or FPV equipped aerial system would be affected - including a 400g 230mm mini quad.  The same could be said of an unpowered slope soarer with a 5.8Ghz 25mW video transmitter.  Or a Lego NXT kids toy, any comparable item, or just about any part thereof.

So, could some of us in the DIYDrones community find ourselves in trouble with the law as a result of this law?

As the issues experienced by Cyber Technology with their CyberQuad demonstrate, the definition of export certainly includes travelling with the item.  Like Lachy Goshi, I would love to take one of my smaller aerial systems with me on my next holiday to southeast Asia, but the idea that I might run foul of the Australian Customs Act or Criminal Code on the way out, or on the way into a foreign country (say at Phuket International, for example) is a bit of a worry.  Hai Tran rightfully points out just how unsettling it is to think that, even as end users, we could find ourselves in hot water if we are not careful. This is especially concerning when the maximum penalties are so incredibly high. Like Ben Dellar, I am keen to know more.

It seems that no matter whether you are a developer, a manufacturer, a reseller or simply an operator or end user, or where in the world you are based, it might well be worth taking a closer look at how these laws might affect you in your jurisdiction.

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  • Good questions brought up, about what the line is between nonmilitary and military technology. There are extensive lists of controlled "capabilities" in the US (hardware and software) that are illegal to export without government approval. Unless a complete product had some sort of export certification on it, it would be impossible for the average pilot to figure out whether or not it was legal to carry his airframe on a trip. 

    The emphasis that I have seen seems to be on components that could be used in a larger product to produce certain capabilities. Components that could be used to make a system that had military applications, are often on the list of things that cannot be exported. This emphasis on components and capabilities (not on the intended use of the total product) is more to keep the technology out of the hands of military developers in unfriendly countries, not primarily to make it so that Hamas cannot mail order dangerous weapons. 

    I'm sure that it is the same in Australia.

  • Export controls are all about not letting the Kims, Sadams and Osamas of the world get their hands on dangerous and threatening technology.  Since Pakistan has the bomb, Uncle Kim has been flying his drones about in Sth Korea's Airspace and Hamas can buy their APM's out of China (or re-code their surplus stock iPhones), the whole idea of export controls is rendered pointless.  It's become a bureaucracy that exists for its own purposes now.

    Make sure you keep that in mind before you cheer on yet more bureaucracy in a misguided attempt to "control something".  Remember, only the "law abiding" will care about what the law says.

  • Ed - The aerial systems and relevant components that are in Australia are not an issue until someone wishes to export them to particular destinations, in which case a permit must be acquired. Registering setup and parameters of each system is not quite relevant in the case of export control, as it is the ability of the technology rather than the configuration that is of concern.
    I agree that we must start thinking about being more proactive about the formation of relevant guidelines and regulation, as they may well shape unfavourably if we just sit on our a&$es. The registration of aerial systems and issuing of vins, etc seems inevitable (and a somewhat sensible step), but it would be best if it were managed under a community organisation rather than CASA themselves. I have some ideas on that, and will construct a post on the subject soon (if mP1 will permit me).

    mP1 - note the Crown sitting on top of the crest.
  • I wonder why the title and badge dont include Royal ? I thought all Australian government institutions at the federal level were Royal, because they are the Queens instruments of government.

  • Maybe just maybe this could be an argument to register all air frames with certain capabilities. If the air frames were registered the current autopilot capabilities and parameters could then be taken into account and thus enable or deny the export or travel with said air frame.

    I know many are adverse to any extra regulation but as a professional industry we should be proactive in finding solutions to both our requirements as users and the government/ regulators in there completion of there duties.

    I'd be happy to guess at this stage that here in Australia CASA or anybody else would have little more than an educated guess at the number of air frames in the country that could be classified under arms control regulations.making any form of control or policing all but impossible.

    Obviously I would not endorse over the top regulations that would prevent any current commercial ventures but some form of standardised airworthiness and maintenance regulation linked to a registration scheme will eventually have to be in place as more 20-99 kg air frames enter commercial use.

  • In general, the idea is that if the primary purpose of something is not military, the thing can be exported.  It's easier to make this claim if the first customer is a civilian.  I will tell you that dealing with ITAR, the DDTC (Directorate of Defense Trade Controls), and the USML is a gigantic bureaucratic nightmare and an expensive one at that.  You have to cough up $2500 a year just for the privilege of asking for permission to export something.  If you submit a Commodity Jurisdiction Determination request, chances are that whoever looks at it is likely to err on the side of saying it's controlled.  Beyond that, a human being is looking over your applications and there is inconsistency in their views.  I have had an application approved by one person and the very same application with a different destination country require big changes.  Their response was "You got lucky."
    If you try to export a controlled product, everything in it suddenly becomes controlled too even if it's a screw you bought at Home Depot.

    There are lots of companies and law firms out there who handle this stuff which tells you something right there.  Big defense companies can afford big staffs to deal with export.  The little guy has a much tougher time of it.

    Oh, and I hope you like Windows and Internet Explorer because you have to use those two things to submit the paperwork.  Dumb and yet typical of a government operation.

    The sad part is that the evil countries don't care about this stuff.

  • Oh, it seems Wassenaar is the swanky suburb of The Hague.  I'll bet they have nice hotels, restaurants and other bureaucrat-magnets there.

    When we finally have the Ferguson Accord or the Pripyat Agreement we'll know the world is back on track...

  • Wow, so it's the club of nations who want to shackle their high-technology industries in bureaucratic chains and red-tape to prevent the unpreventable!  Never mind that most of this technology can be sourced from China, Taiwan, Israel, Brazil etc. without upsetting the Wassenaar-ites.

    When will the world begin to question whether politicians and bureaucracy can actually fix a problem?  Not before we've had some more airspace reform, I'm sure...

  • Hai Tran - It is certainly easy to know what is controlled and what is not unless you are to interpret it literally, which would cover just about anything we use.

    Marc Ramsey - Thanks for pointing that out. I had not made the connection. I remember when the Wassenaar Arrangement was creating headaches for Sony, back when there were concerns that countries like Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea might re-purpose the graphics accelerator in the PS2 to drive a cruise missile.

    For better or worse the Wassenaar Arrangement is constantly being violated. It has also been criticized for being driven more by concerns of an economic nature rather than of security.

    Gary Mortimer - "The error related to an over specified product description, of shipped equipment on register."  I wonder what that means specifically!? Are you able to shed any further light on that?

    Gary McCray - No worries mate!

  • Great Post Quadzimodo,

    I have long thought it was amazing that our open source, open hardware approach was as successful as it has been.

    Both the FPV and autonomous capabilities that we have are certainly capable of abuse.

    But the simple fact is that they are also completely a result of simple implementations based on very widely available consumer equipment and technologies like cell phones and tablets.

    We use cell phone and tablet type microcontrollers, IMUs and cameras to produce pretty much all the capabilities we have.

    And we are truly an international group.

    The only way the protectionist "governments" can stop proliferation of this technology is to control and censor all communication and to remove all technologically based consumer goods from the market.\

    That seems singularly unlikely to succeed.

    But we are now faced with governments trying to figure out how to deal with a situation which until very recently would be viewed as exporting and common availability of many of what they have perceived to be their most important military assets.

    At this point it is very clear that one hand has absolutely no idea what the other is doing.

    One thing that is certain is that it is going to be very interesting to see how all this shakes out.

    "And when they finally come up with the equivalent of the sub $100.00 sub one ounce 3 axis ring gyro it is going to be even more interesting".

    It probably won't be an actual ring gyro, but the cell phone and tablet manufacturers know how important accurate position determination without having to use GPS is, so it is only a matter of time.



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