In the UAS/UAV race, China is beating the U.S.

While the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) market is on a strong growth track — nationally and here in Dayton — there are still concerns and challenges.

One concern: China is well ahead of the United States in the production of unmanned aerial vehicles and in building a supply chain of components for those vehicles, including motors.

“I think it’s a strategic challenge, actually,” said Frank Beafore, executive director at SelectTech Geospatial, a Springfield company that builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for customers civilian and military.

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“Without these kind of raw materials, I don’t know how we can do some of the things we do,” he added. “If we ever got cut off from that source (of vehicles and parts), I think we’d really be in really serious trouble.”

Beafore spoke Wednesday at UAS Midwest 2018 at Sinclair Community College, a forum devoted to exploring the state of the industry in Ohio and beyond.

Most quality builders of UAS vehicles are found in China, Beafore told the forum. The lack of American builders of UAV motors is a particular concern, he said.

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“I’m here to tell you that I think some of the best motors on unmanned aircraft come out of China,” he said. “I know of only one American manufacturer, that’s Neu Motors out in California.”

“We’re having problems sourcing, as well,” Beafore added.

Those searching for automated or software-directed vehicles made in America have only two choices, he said. And those systems can run around $6,000 and up.

There’s no quick way to remedy the situation, he said. Good American companies have to be found and nurtured.

“It’s all about ROI (return on investment),” he said. “It’s not an easy answer. I pick motors. But it’s a lot broader than that. Think about batteries, the lithium-ion batteries in your phone. The largest manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries is again, China.”

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The U.S. market is growing, however. There are about 110,000 commercial UAVs flying in the U.S. today and there are expected to be around 600,000 early in the 2020s, said Tim Sweeney, JobsOhio director of advanced manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, citing Federal Aviation Administration numbers.

Today, the global market stands at more than $88 billion, he said.

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