News and Commentary. A recent Financial Times article (article behind paywall) reports on a DOI memo stating that Blue sUAS are more expensive, less capable than other Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) drones- and still include Chinese parts.
The Blue sUAS list of 5 drone solutions was published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in response to security concerns over China-made drone technology. This list of drone solutions – not drone companies, but specific models – includes drones developed in collaboration with the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit, which meet the DoD’s security and functionality requirements.
Originally designed to identify small drones that could be purchased with DoD funding, the list has since been adopted by other government agencies and some commercial industries as a “safe” list. Some industry players say that publication of the list has provided the 5 companies included on the list with an unfair market advantage. A Department of Interior memo published in January says that the solutions do not meet their needs.
The Department of Interior and Blue sUAS
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DoI) was possibly the federal agency most affected by the ban on Chinese-made drone technology. In 2018, the DoI downed their entire drone fleet of more than 800 aircraft in response to security concerns, despite the fact that they had worked with leading drone manufacturer DJI on a “Government Edition” which a later Pentagon audit confirmed did not pose a security risk. In 2020, the DoI announced that it would use only U.S.-manufactured drones. In 2021, the U.S. General Services Administration, the aquisition and procurement arm of the U.S. federal government, announced that it would limit procurement to drones on the Blue sUAS list.
According to the DOI memo seen by the Financial Times, the decision has limited the agency’s ability to perform necessary conservation work, including that mandated by law which require large scale mapping.
From the Financial Times article: The memo, written in January for the incoming Biden administration, said: “By only having the ‘Blue UAS [unmanned aerial systems]’ approved, it reduces DoI sensor capabilities by 95 per cent . . . The aircraft are designed for a very specific DoD [Department of Defense] mission set and will only meet around 20 per cent of DoI mission requirements.”
Additionally, the memo pointed out that Blue sUAS solutions may cost between 8 and 14 times more than the COTS drones that the DOI used previously. The memo points out that according to a Department of Defense Audit, most of the Blue sUAS contain Chinese-made parts, including circuit boards. The “country of origin” approach that lawmakers have used to define drone security could prove a double-edged sword for government agencies – particularly as the FTC moves to crack down on exactly what “Made in the U.S.” means.
The Blue sUAS were developed for the DoD – and they’re designed specifically to meet the security and functionality needs of the DoD. Other agencies, and commercial industry, may need to develop their own criteria.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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