The US government has established a policy for exports of military and commercial drones, including armed ones, and said it plans to work with other countries to shape global standards for the use of the controversial weapons systems.
The US State Department said on Tuesday that it would allow exports of lethal US military drones under strict conditions, including that sales must be made through government programmes and that recipient nations must agree to certain "end-use assurances".
The policy, the details of which are classified, comes after a two-year review amid growing demand from US allies for the new breed of weapons that have played a key role in US military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
It could help US companies boost sales of military and commercial drones in an increasingly competitive global market.
Privately held General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drones, Northrop Grumman Corp, Textron Inc and other arms makers have been urging Washington for years to loosen strict export curbs, which they say have caused them to lose orders to Israel and others in the growing market.
Ideally, the policy would help industry better understand the current complex review process for drone exports, said Remy Nathan, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association.
He told Reuters that AIA had asked for a classified briefing on the policy.
The shift came just days after US aviation regulators proposed rules that would lift some restrictions on drone use for commercial purposes, but would still limit activities such as inspections of pipelines.
The change also follows stern warnings by top US officials about rapid advances in weapons technology by China, Russia and other potential foes, including unmanned systems.
China has its own ambitious drone programme and has exported drones to at least nine countries, including Pakistan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, while it is also in talks with Saudi Arabia and Algeria for sales, according to Chinese state media.
The new policy will make it easier for America's closest allies to buy armed drones, while maintaining stringent controls on the overall technology, US officials said.
Britain is the only country now flying armed US drones, but France and Italy fly Reaper surveillance drones. A State Department official said previous requests for armed drones from Italy and Turkey would be reviewed in light of the new policy.