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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  • Moderator

    Here is the official press release from Cyber Technology

  • How is it possible that the Australian government has the exact same export language as the US Dept of Commerce (EAR), all the way down to the classification number, 9A012??

    See The Wassenaar Arrangement.

  • Moderator

    The most ridiculous part about this unfortunate incident is that virtually none of the technology originated in Australia to start with, the key components in question including the flight control board can be purchased by any one online.

    As both a hobbyist and commercial user, I am very sympathetic , even though some people have expressed the attitude of they should have known better, or it doesn't apply to me.

    I found it quite surprising that these regulations exist and that the way they are worded means it affects not just businesses, but anyone that might be traveling with their "toy" model aircraft that has an autopilot.

    It's about as ridiculous as taking your encrypted laptop overseas, technically encryption is also under export control as well!

  • ArileyS - Good spot!

    Scott - I am not sure that simply removing the pixhawk from your quad would get you out of trouble.  The list of Dual Use Goods specially names both 'radio equipment' and 'telemetry and telecontrol equipment' as being controlled goods, so the components you might need to source at the other end potentially includes a new OSD, VTX, RCTX, RCRX.

  • So if I remove my Pixhawk from my quad, I am safe. Then buy a new pixhawk delivered to the country I am going to. Better yet, I can just remove the software off the pixhawk - since all those restrictions are based on software.

  • How is it possible that the Australian government has the exact same export language as the US Dept of Commerce (EAR), all the way down to the classification number, 9A012??  See page 4-5 here.  Criminy, do the bureaucrats just copy and paste each other?

    And yes, any RTF FPV or UAV aircraft is export controlled under these regulations, apparently both in Australia and the United States, as 3DR's recent incident illustrates.…
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