Updated: Jan 3
by Christopher Todd Long-anticipated roster provides little clarity for Florida public safety and governmental agencies, partners using drones
MIAMI – Florida has emerged as the latest battleground over the use of foreign-made drones by state government agencies and the contractors providing services on their behalf. “The Florida List” has become one of the hottest topic of conversation within the unmanned systems sector, culminating with the publication last week of a questionably conceived list of approved drone manufacturers by the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS).
Before we get into all of that, let’s explore the history on how the State of Florida came to arrive at this point
Back before Ron DeSantis became the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott served two terms as Florida’s 45th Governor. Governor Scott decided to run for U.S. Senate in 2018. He was elected, and joined Marco Rubio, as Florida’s two U.S Senators in Washington D.C.
On September 18, 2019 as part of the 116th Congress, Senator Scott introduced S.2502 the American Drone Security Act of 2019. The bill was co-sponsored by Senator Rubio, along with Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Christopher Murphy (D-CT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Given the current climate inside the beltway, the legislation was one of few that demonstrated considerable bi-partisan support across both sides of the aisle.
The American Drone Security Act of 2019 essentially contained three main provisions:
To ban the procurement or use by the federal government of commercial off-the-shelf drones or other unmanned aircraft systems manufactured or assembled by certain entities, including entities subject to influence or control by China, with exceptions.
To prohibit Federal funds from being used to purchase or operate such a drone or system, or a system to counter unmanned aircraft systems, that is manufactured or assembled by such an entity.
To require the Government Accountability Office to report regarding such drones or systems procured by federal agencies from foreign entities.
Fast forward two years, and on January 27, 2021, Senator Scott re-introduced the American Drone Security Act of 2021 as S.73 of the 117th Congress. The bill was again co-sponsored by Senators Rubio, Cotton, Blackburn, Blumenthal, Murphy, and Hawley.
Among other things, the American Drone Security Act of 2021 mandated the following provisions:
To ban the procurement or use by the federal government of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that are manufactured or assembled by certain entities, including entities subject to influence or control by China, with exceptions.
To prohibit Federal funds from being used to procure certain UAS from a foreign entity, with exceptions. All executive agencies must account for existing inventories of UAS manufactured or assembled by a foreign entity in their personal property accounting systems. Inventory data related to UAS manufactured or assembled by a foreign entity may be tracked at a classified level.
To restrict Government-issued purchase cards from beingused to procure any UAS from a foreign entity.
To require the Office of Management and Budget to (1) establish a government-wide policy for the procurement of UAS, taking into account information security; and (2) contract with a federally funded research and development center to study certain UAS-related issues.
Together, the American Drone Security Acts of 2019 and 2021 introduced by Florida Senator (Scott) who was the former Governor, and co-sponsored by Florida Senator (Rubio), seemed to indicate an environment of substantial concern emulating from within the State of Florida surrounding the use of foreign made drones.
Now pay attention because this is the point where things start to get even more interesting.
About a month before the January 2021 re-introduction of the American Drone Security Act of 2021 at the federal level by Sen. Scott, Florida State Senator Tom A. Wright introduced Florida Senate Bill 44: Use of Drones by Government Agencies on December 28, 2020.
It is unclear if Wright, a fellow Republican, was somehow influenced by Scott and/or Rubio. But it would be prudent to assume that the three men knew one another in some capacity, and probably had at least some common connections within Florida’s Republican Party.
Regardless, Florida SB 44 had some very useful provisions for public safety agencies. The legislation expanded the authorized use of drones by law enforcement agencies and other specified entities for specific purposes such as monitoring large crowds of 50 people or more, traffic accident investigations, wildlife management, and damage assessment due to a natural disaster.
However, SB 44 also contained a section that closely emulated certain provisions of the American Drone Security Act of 2019, and soon to be re-introduced American Drone Security Act of 2021 at the Federal level by Sen. Scott. Specifically, the legislation mandated that the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) must by January 1, 2022, and in consultation with the state chief information officer, publish on the DMS website a list of approved manufacturers whose drones may be purchased or otherwise acquired and used by a government agency in Florida. Additionally, the legislation stated that beginning on the date that DMS published the above reference Approved Drone Manufacturers list, a Florida “governmental agency may only purchase or otherwise acquire a drone from an approved manufacturer.”
SB 44 had bi-partisan support and the bill quickly worked its way through the Florida legislature where on April 28, 2021, and after the adoption of an amendment, it passed unanimously 40-0.
Florida Governor DeSantis signed the legislation on June 29, 2021, thereby amending section 934.50 of the Florida Statutes. Most people did not even notice this action at the time since global attention was largely focused on the emergency response to the Champlain Tower South building collapse in Surfside, Florida.
As word about the passage and enactment of the legislation began to propagate, there was little doubt in the minds of most educated observers and subject matter experts that the intended target of this effort was Chinese-manufactured drones – especially drones manufactured by DJI.
Since the introduction of the DJI Phantom 1 drone in 2013, the company had exploded into the world’s leading consumer drone manufacturer within just a few short years. In fact, over 90% of public safety agencies with UAS programs were operating DJI drones as part of their fleet according to AIRT-DRONERESPONDERS research conducted in Summer 2021.
Understandably, this made Florida public safety agencies who were now using DJI drones very nervous. These agencies had spent considerable time, money, and effort bootstrapping their drone programs into existence. DJI was often the logical choice from a practical perspective. The technology was typically superior and available at a lower price point then most other small unmanned aircraft systems.
These agencies would now spend the next six months wondering whether DJI would be included, or omitted, from the list. But to be clear, the dilemma at hand would not only affect DJI drones and their Florida-based government users.
Autel Robotics, a company claiming a headquarters office in Bothell, Washington, but whose drones were also manufactured in Shenzhen, China – often in the very same factories as DJI drones – had surged to the second ranked position in the AIRT-DRONERESPONDERS research. Would Autel make the Florida list?
Some questions also arose about whether Skydio and Parrot, two of the companies that had made the original Federal Blue UAS list (now referred to as Blue UAS 1.0) would make the cut. While both companies had developed a new series of sUAS under a Department of Defense contract for the U.S. Army, these drones had not generated widespread delivery, in part due to the current restrained supply chain landscape resulting from the global COVID pandemic and other issues. Existing Parrot technology including the ANAFI and ANAFI Thermal series of sUAS relied on technology that was also manufactured in China, including Parrot’s SkyController 3 ground station – which was the same exact ground station that is used (under contract) by Skydio for the Skydio 2 series. If the goal was to eliminate Chinese tech from the UAS ecosystem, how could Skydio and Parrot make the cut with this technology?
The notion of devising a list of “Approved Drone Manufacturers” for Florida did not look to be an easy task unless DMS was willing to simply copy the Blue UAS initiative – the easiest pathway which most observers expected to be the route taken by the department.
However, there was even confusion surrounding what that type of move might look like. The original Blue UAS list (Blue UAS 1.0) listed specific drone makes and models that could be used by five drone manufacturers. The more recent Blue UAS 2.0 list names eleven vendors that are part of a new pilot program that will define how additional drone manufacturers could be added to the list.
Compounding the issue at hand, the quagmire surrounding the pending DMS list would not only affect Florida public safety agencies. Drone service providers and remote pilot networks such as Airborne Response and DroneBase which hold active contracts with Citizens Property Insurance Corporation of Florida would also fall under the scrutiny of the revised section 934.50 of the Florida Statutes. Citizens is an official government entity of the State of Florida. Hence, the remote pilot contractors performing routine aerial roof inspections of homes hit by severe storms for Citizens policy holders would now need to use compliant UAS based on the DMS list.
Tension was building among Florida’s government drone user community through the late summer, fall, and early winter. As the deadline quickly approached, there was nothing but silence coming out of Tallahassee from DMS on the issue.
Suddenly in mid-December, a select group of government users largely representing the public safety community were invited to join a conference call hosted by DMS to share their voices towards defining the approved drone manufacturers list. That call was held on December 17. Scheduled to last an hour, the call only lasted around 30 minutes – a clear indication that the project was not really meant to be a true cooperative effort, but rather more of a farce intended to push forward a preconceived list that had been handed down from a higher authority.
That call left many of the public safety participants feeling dejected. Still, they held out hope.
Those hopes were largely obliterated on Wednesday December 29, in what swiftly became one of more controversial acts impacting the unmanned systems industry in 2021. With little context and no official announcement, the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS) published their long anticipated “Approved Drone Manufacturers” list – as directed – in a form of a webpage hosted on the DMS website.
The list named five “approved manufacturers whose drones may be purchased or otherwise acquired and used by a government agency under section 934.50.” the list was an exact mirror of the original Blue UAS 1.0 list, and the five approved drone manufacturers listed were:
The list was so much of a copy/paste job that DMS did not even bother to list the names of the companies alphabetically, or change the name of Altavian -- which had been acquired by what is now Teledyne FLIR over a full year earlier on December 2, 2020.
News of the posting of the new Florida Approved Drone Manufacturers list by DMS spread faster than the new Omicron COVID variant in an overcrowded Las Vegas convention hall.
Seriously, people went berserk.
DMS was flooded with queries and within just a few hours the webpage was taken down. New visitors to the page instead found a cryptic login screen requesting a username and password.
Speculation ran rampant. Social media exploded. The phones of public safety drone industry insiders rang louder than the bell of a Salvation Army red kettle custodian who had a few too many espresso shots.
Then, on December 31, the DMS page went live again with the same exact Approved Drone Manufacturers list. The only change in the copy on the web page was the addition of a new lead paragraph that represented a temporary stay of execution stating that “governmental agencies may continue to utilize drones not on the department’s approved list until January 1, 2023.”
And that brings us to today; a resulting quagmire that is clear as mud and generates more questions than it does answers:
Is this the final list or just a work in progress?
Which exact drone models are approved for purchase and use?
How do batteries and other accessories factor into the equation?
Will Blue UAS 2.0 firms also be added to the list?
When can the drone user community expect another update from DMS?
Will funding be appropriated and allocated for agencies to procure new drones?
Who is enforcing the list?
What is the penalty for non-compliance?
And so on …
Florida governmental and public safety agencies, as well as those who provide drone products and services on their behalf, are now left bewildered and scratching their heads. Some even say they feel demoralized by a process that – by all indications – was driven almost completely by politics rather than by practicality.
This is not what the Florida drone community was hoping for. But it is also not the end of the road.
Working through tough challenges like this is one of the primary reason the DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Coordination Group (FLOGRU) was created. Formed in partnership between AIRT, the nation's leading 501(c)3 non-profit organization supporting the use of drones for emergencies, and the AUVSI Florida Peninsula Chapter, a 501(c)6 non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of unmanned systems, robotics, and autonomy, FLOGRU is lead by credentialed and seasoned public safety drone program coordinators from agencies located within the State of Florida.
Together, the FLOGRU team representing government, industry, and academia will work to improve communications and deliver the clarity needed for all parties to better understand the DMS Approved Drone Manufacturers list. You can also bet this subject will be a key topic at the DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Forum at AUVSI's XPONENTIAL at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando from April 25-28.
A great deal more will be discovered, said, and written about The Florida List as it evolves from its present form into its next iteration -- whatever that is. Other states are watching. The Federal government is watching. You can bet that drone manufacturers are most certainly watching. This will continue to be one of the most intriguing stories affecting the drone industry throughout 2022.
This saga is just beginning. Keep your eye on Florida, and fasten your seat belt for what is sure to be a very interesting ride.