By Matt Doernhoefer, Product Director
The market dominance of DJI, a Chinese manufacturer with a 70-80 percent share of commercial drone sales, came at a price for security. Recently discovered backdoors or other security vulnerabilities from companies such as Huawei and Aisino caused significant concerns within the United States government and among owners and operators of critical American infrastructure.
Vulnerabilities have been located in Chinese sourced software by law enforcement and the private information security community, and it was questioned as to whether the vulnerabilities were truly accidental. The US federal government elected to ground a large portion of their drone fleet due to these information security concerns, with the Department of the Interior grounding over 800 DJI drones.
Thus far, there have been no specific issues identified with DJI drones, but the mandate to ground them came regardless. The ban included critical parts such as flight controllers, radios, data transmission devices, cameras, or gimbals which constitute the core command and control systems as well as most common payloads.
Enter the Blue sUAS program, a turning point in the integration of drones into government service and critical infrastructure.
This program, commissioned by the US Army under the name “Short Range Reconnaissance”, was intended to provide a list of pre-selected drones that do not utilize components sourced in “adversary nations.”
The program also laid out a series of other requirements (e.g., weight, flight time, payload, cost) needed for a platoon-level drone reconnaissance platform. The program was subcontracted to the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to conduct the market survey and manufacturing due diligence. DIU conducted the survey under the name “Blue sUAS Project.”
The Blue sUAS project provided an initial five secure, trusted sUAS options for the Department of Defense and Federal Government procurement that meet FY2020 NDAA Section 848 requirements to the US Army Program Executive Office (PEO). This program was intended to meet the specific needs of the PEO for a secure, battlefield-level drone. The results of the Blue sUAS project did not preclude the government from purchasing any other UAS that are certified compliant by the purchasing government organization.
One would think that this is the end of the story; however, the media went in a slightly different direction.
The most popular article about the Blue sUAS program was published by The Verge. The content gives the perception that these are the only drones approved by the USG and DoD. We have noticed this perception in our efforts to sell our new drone, the Aertos 130IR. We’ve been asked multiple times if we’ve been approved by Blue sUAS, and while our drone is fully NDAA compliant, we were not invited to participate in the program due to the fact that our drone is not intended to be a battlefield level drone.
The UAS regulatory and compliance space in the United States is rapidly evolving, and it’s important for those evaluating drones to consider that various compliance programs may be limited in scope and not necessarily representative of “official” government approvals. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act was just signed in December, and we’re still watching to see how the new administration will influence UAS policy and regulation.
It’s reasonable to assume that the ban on Chinese-made drones will remain in place. In the meantime, Digital Aerolus continues to seek federal partners and successfully test our Aertos line with federal departments and agencies. Until a more-formalized approval program is created, we’re happy to provide direct and hands-on demonstrations for any interested federal partner.