WASHINGTON — Beginning in September, entities across the U.S. Department of Defense will be able to buy small, American-manufactured drones from five select companies, allowing users in the field to quickly and easily gain a bird’s eye view of their environment.
A spin-off of U.S. Army efforts to develop a rucksack-packable quadcopter with the Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) program of record, the Defense Innovation Unit’s Blue sUAS effort let’s U.S. government customers purchase trusted small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) that can take off and land vertically. The new drones were developed to comply with Section 848 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which prohibits the procurement of UAS built in China.
Drone configurations will be available from five manufacturers: Altavian, Parrot, Skydio, Teal, and Vantage Robotics.
“I think the fact that we started a program with a single requirement around an Army effort and were able to scale it across not only all of the services in DoD to include (U.S. Special Operations Command) and the combatant commands as well as the inter-agency federal government partners ― at least to me ― is super exciting,” Chris Bonzagni, a program manager within DIU’s autonomy portfolio and an sUAS subject matter expert, told C4ISRNET. “As a former infantryman, having this capability when I was deployed to Iraq would have been a dream come true.”
While Blue sUAS uses the same aerial vehicles as SRR, it offers a vendor-provided ground control system and radio configurations that can be used by customers across DoD and the federal government more broadly. Blue sUAS drones will be available on the GSA schedule starting in September 2020, though DoD entities can also pursue a production contract via Other Transaction Authority, DIU noted in their announcement.
“Blue sUAS represents a tremendous first step toward building a robust and trusted UAS domestic industrial base that ensures sustained delivery of highly-capable, secure UAS to the warfighters that depend on it,” said Michael Kratsios, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “Blue sUAS showcases how we can both work with small, nontraditional companies and our allies and partners to quickly pilot cutting-edge technologies that support our mutual defense.”
The path to Blue sUAS started about two years ago, according to Bonzagni. The Army approached DIU for help adopting commercial quadcopters for use by every platoon. DIU staff walked the Army through their Commercial Solutions Opening process, distilling about 60 pages of requirements to just a page and a half, making them more accessible to commercial companies looking to work with DoD. Those specifications were posted in November 2018, drawing 34 responses from industry. DIU accepted pitches from half of those companies, and ultimately downselected to just six companies five months later in April 2019. Of those six companies, four had never even worked with DoD before.
“Blue sUAS is a great example of DoD acquisition reform by lowering the barrier to entry for non-traditional companies to rapidly iterate shoulder to shoulder with warfighters to deliver highly capable sUAS tailored to mission needs,” said Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord in a statement.
Under those contracts, DIU worked with those six companies to modify their mature commercial products for broader DoD needs. Among other things, the companies had to incorporate a thermal camera, add a DoD data link, cyber test the drones and ruggedize them for field use.
Midway through development, Congress passed a new requirement in the annual defense policy legislation, prohibiting the operation or procurement of UAS manufactured in China. That effort grounded significant numbers of government drones, said Bonzagni, and there were no suitable U.S.-manufactured alternatives available. While the Army continued to focus on developing a solution specifically for its soldiers through SRR, the new requirement opened up a much broader need across the federal government for U.S.-manufactured sUAS. DIU was able to leverage the Army’s investment in SRR and make the technology available for all federal government customers — including organizations that use drones every day like the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Geological Survey — as Blue sUAS.
Drones available through Blue sUAS can be assembled in two minutes or less and will have an operational range of over 3 kilometers, flight endurance greater than 30 minutes, and can fly through dust and rain. All products are three pounds or greater. According to Bonzagni, DIU is looking for a pricing range between $7,000 and $15,000 per unit, although the end price point will vary based on configuration.
“While all these offerings were derived from essentially consumer-based [products] ― in some cases toys and some cases fun cameras in the sky — these are sUAS built for work,” explained Matthew Borowski, program manager within DIU’s sUAS portfolio and an sUAS subject matter expert. “There really is no consumer offering that has the type of payload package that these drones have on them, including higher resolution thermal cameras [and cameras with seamless zoom].”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.