In a nondescript parking lot in Andover, Massachusetts, outside an aggressively generic office building, I am piloting an InstantEye quadcopter gently over the Merrimack River. At around 300 feet above the ground, I can no longer hear its rotors or make out its roughly basketball-sized body against the bright sky.
With a press of a button and a slight change in angle, the InstantEye MK-2 turns and moves its camera to the porch where I am standing. The shade hides us a little, but after pressing another button the infrared camera identifies several bodies. If I was not piloting the drone, I would have no idea it was out there, looking at me.
In recent years, the quadcopter has moved from a hobbyist toy that might see battlefield use to a dedicated family of drones at hobbyist, commercial and military levels. They all aim to provide roughly the same advantage: an unobtrusive eye in the sky, priced cheaply enough to replace easily if lost. That hobbyist drones have been adapted by uniformed militaries and nonstate actors into bomb-dropping threats is a natural outgrowth of technology cheap enough to make expendable.
Now the Army wants to take advantage of this paradigm shift.
“The UAS asset should be designed to be a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that is rapidly deployable in austere, harsh environments,” read an Army solicitation posted in April 2019 to the FedBizOpps website. Besides VTOL, the Army wanted a drone with a camera payload, providing electro-optical/infrared radar video on a stable gimbal.
It is the kind of capability that an officer could likely pick up for a few hundred dollars at the Pentagon City Mall.
The future of tactical war likely looks like what happened with quadcopters: commercial technology cheap and useful enough to be adapted to military ends. But the drone market is compounded by one fact: the majority of hobbyist drones and their components are built in China, and working outside that market means foregoing much of the cost savings that make quadcopters so attractive.
“We paint a large portion of the intelligence picture with minimal risk to men and equipment. What may take a scout team a day to do, may only take three hours for us,” Sgt. Christopher Curley, an Army SUAS master trainer, said in 2018. “The quadcopter is a great tool for quick recon. I relate it to fishing; you cast your reel, check that area and then move on.”
Curley’s suite of drones included the longer-range fixed-wing Ravens and Pumas, built to military specifications. Combined, the set of small drones can gather up to 60 percent of intelligence in training exercises. When it came to the quadcopters, Curley’s unit relied on off-the-shelf drones.
The Army is already training for a future where military quadcopters are ubiquitous. But to get there, it’s had to rely heavily on commercial products.
The phantom of the ops era
“We don’t market our products toward military use, nor we do sell direct to commercial or industrial users,” said Michael Oldenburg, a spokesman for DJI North America.
DJI’s drones have become ubiquitous in the civilian world and ever-present in military use, both formal and informal, as one of the simplest, cheapest ways to put a camera in the sky. All this even though DJI never intended to be a military contractor, and largely shies away from that role.
Formally Da Jiang Innovations, the China-based firm was founded in 2006 as a company that made components for remote-control hobbyists. The DJI as we know it today starts in 2013, with the release of the ready-to-fly out of the box Phantom quadcopter. In the six years since the Phantom’s release, DJI-produced drones have shown up on battlefields in Ukraine and Iraq. None of this was intended; after footage was released of a DJI Mavic releasing bombs in Ukraine, the company said “DJI strongly deplores any attempts to use our drones to cause harm; we build our products for peaceful purposes.”
That DJI looms so large over the military quadcopter market is a second-order effect of the company’s market share in the civilian world. A 2018 survey by Skylogic Research (funded, in part, by DJI) estimated that the company owned 74 percent of the hobbyist drone market, a figure that climbed to 86 percent when considering drones that cost $1,000 - $1,999.
How extensively has the Pentagon used these drones?
DJI said it only offers its products through resellers and so doesn’t track what gets purchased by who and only learns about any military acquisitions after the fact. But it is possible to infer the extent of DJI drone use by the agencies within the Pentagon that have explicitly banned the company’s products.
- Consider the fact that the Army issued an order in August 2017 for soldiers to stop using DJI-made drones, which hit communities as diverse as public affairs officers and special operators.
- Acquisition requests from 2017 show that the Army purchased everything from Phantom 3 quadcopters to Mavic quadcopters to Matrice 600 hexacopters, all made by DJI.
- A 2018 memo from the Deputy Secretary of Defense suspended all purchases of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drones, with an exception available by waiver.
- In May, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., boasted of a provision in the annual defense policy bill that specifically bans the Pentagon from purchasing drones made by a designated “strategic competitor,” primarily China.
“We are okay with our products not meeting all of the needs of the DoD,” Oldenburg said.
“They’re not MilSpec; they’re not designed to be used in the field of war or by any military organization that is conducting sensitive missions. We’ve never made that claim.”
Robotic boom, robotic bust
To understand how the Pentagon repeatedly found itself buying drones made outside the United States, consider another company: 3DR, a U.S.-based and venture-backed company that started making drone parts, transitioned to a retail quadcopter, and is now a software company for drones.
“In 12 months,” Forbes wrote in 2016, “the company has gone from an industry leading U.S. drone startup to an organization struggling to survive – the result of mismanagement, ill-advised projections and a failed strategy that relied on a doomed flagship drone.”
Still, there was one area where 3DR could reliably claim an advantage over DJI: the fact it was based in the United States.
In August 2018, the Department of the Interior contracted 3DR for a modest purchase of 109 Solo quadcopters. This followed an earlier 2016 contract
for the Solo, but by 2017, with 3DR transitioning from the hardware to the software business, Interior still needed a quadcopter that could meet its specific needs. So, the department turned to the makers of the quadcopters that kept showing up in the military.
“Market research ... indicated the remaining UAS available from U.S.-based companies were up to 10x less capable for the same price, or up to 10x more costly than similarly capable DJI aircraft,” wrote the Department of the Interior in an evaluation of its DJI systems.
In collaboration and consultation with the Interior Department, DJI created a more cyber-minded firmware and software suite for its existing drone hardware, dubbed “Government Edition.” That includes security features like the drone never needing to go online, and being unable to pair with regular, out-of-the-box commercial remotes. Government Edition drones come at a premium, but one of those quadcopters costs less than two retail models.
Interior Department testing of the Government Edition hardware/firmware package, done in conjunction with NASA Kennedy Space Center, found “there was no indication that data was being transmitted outside the system and that they were operating as promised by DJI,” which largely matches the independent cybersecurity assessment DJI commissioned from Kivu Consulting.
While not designed for military use, the Interior Department’s evaluation of DJI quadcopters left an opening: the Pentagon could learn to work with the off-the-shelf drones it has, rather than buy the off-the-shelf drones it wants.
Instant eye for the battlefield sky
It is easy to assume the military is limited to hobbyist quadcopters built abroad. That’s not the case. Most small uncrewed aerial systems used by the military are fixed-wing drones like the Raven, Dragon Eye and Wasp. Specialized quadcopters — such as the Canada-made Aeryon Scout, a high-end military quadcopter — were supplied to anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya in 2012.
The problem is that the military version of Aeryon Scout is the $100,000 price tag. Commercial quadcopters — such as the DJI Phantom, Parrot drones and even 3DR Solo — were all available at a fraction of the price, and in many cases they were more than adequate to do the job.
Pairing the lower cost in the civilian space with the capability and security expected from a product built to military specifications is tricky, but not impossible.
But it is happening, for example, in Andover, Massachusetts.
InstantEye is a product of Physical Science Inc. Developed with funding from, among other sources, the Army and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the InstantEye Mk-2 GEN3 quadcopters became a program of record for Special Operations Command in 2014.
The InstantEye Mk2 and Mk3 quadcopters look like they could be sold on a shelf alongside hobbyist products, with the soft military gray casing slotting in between the bright whites and matte blacks of consumer models.
Physical Science said the Pentagon has roughly 2,000 InstantEye kits across all combatant commands. (Each kit has two quadcopters, which means that’s roughly 4,000 individual drones). These drones have seen action in Syria and the horn of Africa. A heavy-lift model can carry up to a 44-ounce payload, making it an ideal tool for clearing explosive ordnance with explosives of its own. Code in the drone allows it to maintain the same hovering position while releasing the payload, rather than the sudden loss of weight sending it rocketing upwards.
Within the military specification drone market, PSI sees the InstantEye family as a direct competitor with the Black Hornet drone used by the U.S. Army, a sparrow-sized remote-control helicopter that fits into pockets and comes with a hefty price tag. PSI was vague on the cost but said it came in significantly less than the Black Hornet, which costs roughly $60,000 apiece.
PSI officials said the drones are Buy American Act compliant, certified through the Defense Logistics Agency. At present capacity, PSI’s Andover production facility makes about 50 two-drone kits a month. With greater demand and staffing, the company estimates it could produce between 80 and 100 such kits per month, if needed.
In 2018, the Army requested roughly 1,700 small drones. Should FY2021 see a similar quantity of drones requested, it’s possible that PSI’s Andover facility could, with a modest increase in staffing, supply the whole lot.
The Army can presently roll out quadcopters as a specialized piece of kit. But it might not be ready to provide quadcopters to every unit that wants one.
Market forces, forces market
The durability and use of InstantEye shows that the Pentagon can, if so determined, fund a quadcopter company into existence. It means that, in the face of concerns about the cybersecurity of off-the-shelf drones, the Pentagon still largely has access to the simple utility of an easy-to-fly aerial camera.
What remains to be seen is if Pentagon investment can produce a drone made in the United States, priced at a point close to consumer drones and assembled abroad with parts sourced from across the globe.
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord announced in May the launch of the “Trusted Capital Marketplace,” a partnership to facilitate private and public capital going to investment in companies deemed critical to the defense industrial base and national security. At an August briefing, Lord announced that the first project for the marketplace would be the development of a small UAS.
Why start with quadcopters?
“It’s because where we are right now in terms of having our entire U.S. marketplace eroded,” said Lord. “Essentially, we don’t have much of a small UAS industrial base because DJI dumped so many low-price quadcopters on the markets. And we then
became dependent on them, both from the defense point of view and the commercial point of view, and we know that a lot of the information is sent back to China from those.”
DJI disputes Lord’s claims, highlighting the Kivu Consulting cybersecurity audit that found no evidence of data automatically sent back to China, and stating that DJI’s “market-leading position in the drone industry” is because it “continued to research, develop and deliver the most capable products to the market.”
Lord gave other reasons for the focus on small drones as the marketplace’s first project. One is that small drones are easy for the public to understand. There is also the possibility that, by funding military quadcopter development, the work could rebound into commercial market.
“Plus, if we meet our defense needs, we feel that there are simpler versions that would be very, very attractive for the commercial market, as well,” said Lord. “So, there was a great pathway there for industry.”
Ultimately, the present state of military and domestic quadcopter markets appears guided far more by happenstance than anything else.
DJI, which fell into the off-the-shelf drone market following demand from the hobbyist market, has inadvertently found its products repeatedly sanctioned as inappropriate for roles they were never designed to fill. Companies like 3DR stumbled as much because of errors in execution as stiff competition.
Through it all, the Pentagon has been able to foster and develop its own quadcopters built to military specifications, specifically by contracting for exactly what it needs. It just has yet to capture the same price point as commercial models.
It remains to be seen if new initiatives such as the Trusted Capital Marketplace can balance stated goals of low-cost, military specifications and domestic production. But it is a problem the Army needs to solve. As one product manager for the service told Popular Science earlier this year, “There’s no organic quadcopter capability in the Army.”
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.