How the DOD Helps Create Cheap Drones for Soldiers
The Defense Innovation Unit, tasked with bringing commercial technology to the Pentagon, is expected to announce in the coming weeks the approval of several more US-made amateur-style drones for military use. These drones will comply with congressionally imposed rules regarding the origin of their parts, military requirements for functionality, and the commercial industry’s goal of providing new technologies for the military that can be built and sold to commercial scale to the public.
Currently and in the past, forces fighting on both sides of Russian invasions of Ukraine – first the occupation of Donbass in 2014 and now the invasion of the country in February 2022 – have used commercial drones in their fight. These machines, built from kits or purchased as complete products and assembled from a retailer, offered ground troops something unheard of: easy and inexpensive access to an aerial view of their own position and that of nearby enemies.
This kind of commercial wartime use of drones has hardly been limited to Ukraine. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has used improvised drones and commercial technology to hide and drop bombs since at least 2016, weapons they continued to use as they were forced from power by the forces. local with the support of the United States.
Troops in the United States, despite fighting an enemy using commercial drones to drop bombs, were discouraged – and then prevented by law – from using the same drones unless they could obtain a special permission to fly them. This fight against “Commercial Off-The-Shelf” (COTS) unmanned aerial systems (UAS) has meant that while the United States remains adept at deploying expensive high-end military aircraft-sized drones, American forces were falling behind their peers in other militaries. and even insurgents and irregular forces that field the cheaper end of the drone spectrum.
At the heart of this struggle is the concern that the sensors and computers in many of the most widely available commercial drones were made specifically in China. Members of Congress and parts of the Department of Defense were concerned that these sensors could collect and share information with anyone other than the drone operator. For troops experimenting with quadcopters, this risk remained abstract, until the reports of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Defense made it concrete. (The Office of the Inspector General is responsible for auditing and inspecting existing programs.)
“In the spring of 2018, the Inspector General said, ‘Hey, there are COTS UAS that have cybersecurity vulnerabilities’ and we said, ‘shut up nerd, we’re doing hot drone shit’ “laughs Shelby Ochs, of the IUD. Before joining the DIU, Ochs was a Navy officer, tasked with bringing commercial drones into military use, and inspector general reports stood in the way of getting there. Today, Ochs is program manager for Blue UAS at the Defense Innovation Unit, the team tasked with balancing the legal security constraints of cheap drones with delivering a product to the military that is sufficiently useful and cheap to be consumable in the field.
Following a second report by the Inspector General and then an outright ban from the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, the use of commercial drones by the military was banned in the summer of 2018. A waiver process, whereby units could apply for temporary waivers of the ban, was not approved until December of that year. The problem with the waiver process, Ochs says, was that they “are evaluated per drone, per user, per use case [and] By location. And they’re often good for six months and they need a three star [general’s] Approval”, before an approval committee hears the application.
In short, there are a lot of hurdles to getting permission to fly a cheap drone the kind of off-duty people could just buy and use for fun in their spare time. At the same time, the military was looking for a drone that could meet the simplest reconnaissance need: to look at a hill above or to the side of a building. Something cheap, simple, and useful enough that soldiers can have it with them in the field, put it in the sky, and see just around the corner without risking someone getting shot for spotting it first.
In May 2019, DIU gave six companies $11 million to manufacture the kind of drones the military was looking for, closer to a commercial price while still providing that capability immediately on the hill. These companies included established commercial drone makers like Parrot and other entrants like Skydio and Altavian. The ad promised drones that matched the requirements of the time, but a month later Congress turned its attention to regulating military drone purchases.
This process was further complicated by the NDAA 2020, the massive annual Defense Authorization Act introduced in June 2019 and passed in December of that year. Section 848, “Prohibition on Operating or Acquiring Foreign-Made Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” is just under 300 words, but it dictates significant limits on the types of drones and parts of drones that the military is allowed to buy or use without exemption. . Primarily, the law prohibited the purchase of drones that used “flight controllers, radios, data transmission devices, cameras, or gimbals made” in China, and also prohibited the use of drones that would transmit or store also data on servers in China.
“Drones are just the same Lego bricks put together in new and interesting ways, aren’t they?” Ochs said. “The same radios, cameras and computers.” As Ochs describes, the limiting factor in making drones acceptable to Congress was the lack of US-made flight controllers, radios, data transmitters, cameras, and gimbals, at least not at the price needed to that these drones look like amateurs. -cheap model.
“Lego bricks didn’t exist to make drones cheaper and more capable,” says Ochs.
The Defense Innovation Unit describes drones that meet these requirements as Blue UAS, using the shorthand “blue” to mean “US.” The Blue UAS inception program is “a holistic and ongoing approach that will rapidly examine and scale commercial unmanned aerial systems” for the Department of Defense. Essentially, it’s a way to use government requirements and funding to foster the kind of domestic commercial drone industry that can produce flight controllers, radios, data transmission devices, cameras and domestically made drone gimbals, large scale and cheap enough to use. on cheap drones.
Rather than waiting for a commercial drone market in the United States to come on its own to sell fully compliant parts and models for military use, DIU funded drone development through its Blue UAS. “Sometimes the market needs a little help,” Ochs said. “We just give them the opportunity.”
In other words, the goal was not to reinvent the commercial drone industry from the ground up, but to ensure that there were American-made “Lego bricks” that manufacturers could plug into existing drone models, those that met the cybersecurity needs desired by the Pentagon. and the mandate adopted by Congress.
The development of Blue UAS is dominated by the size and strength of China-made hobby drones, especially the low-cost models produced by drone giant DJI. The company, which makes the popular Phantom and Mavic series of quadcopters, has seen its drones used in wars and insists that was never an intended or permitted use of drones. “We do not market our products for military use, and we do not sell directly to commercial or industrial users,” DJI spokesman Michael Oldenburg told defense industry magazine C4ISRNET in 2019.
On April 21, 2022, DJI reaffirmed the same sentiment and stated that it “unequivocally opposed attempts to attach weapons to our product.” On April 26, he announced he was temporarily suspending all business in Russia and Ukraine in light of the war. The declaration and suspension affirm what observers have long seen, that a cheap, easy-to-fly camera-carrying drone is useful in wartime, despite manufacturers’ intentions.
With DJI explicitly not wanting to supply the military, and with the Department of Defense banning the purchase of DJI drones anyway, Blue UAS is an attempt to incentivize the market to create cheaper drones with compliant parts. law. Some of that scale will come from military orders, but much of it, as one imagines, will also come from companies being able to sell drones made with the same parts to hobbyists in the United States and around the world. These drones may even tap into some supply chains in China for their plastic parts, even though the companies insist that all electronics are assembled outside of that country.
Later this spring or early summer, DIU plans to announce several more drones that have been approved through its Blue UAS process (here is the current list of clearances). What will ultimately matter more than specific drone models, however, is creating a process and a market that can produce the drone parts the Pentagon wants. Over the next few years, if the program lives up to its expectations, when soldiers and marines venture into the field, they will be able to launch new drones into the skies, knowing that the machines are secure enough for the combat, and cheap enough that it doesn’t matter if the drone doesn’t return from the mission.
“If we think robotics is going to enable future warfare, then it has to be inexpensive so we can use it and lose it without fear,” Ochs says.