DIU launches governmentwide drone-buying program

Swarm of security drones with surveillance camera flying in the sky. 3D rendering image

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The Defense Innovation Unit is launching an acquisition program for federal agencies to buy secure small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) as an alternative to Chinese-made drones, which the government fears pose cybersecurity risks.

The program, Blue sUAS, was announced Thursday and will launch in September on the General Services Administration’s Multiple Award Schedule to give agencies an easy way to purchase drones that have been vetted and cleared for use. The companies in the new program are Altavian, Parrot, Skydio, Teal and Vantage Robotics.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act banned federal use of Chinese-made drones over concerns the products could provide backdoors for spying or weak cybersecurity for data created while conducting government operations.

“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,” Ellen Lord, undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment in the DOD, said in a statement.

Federal agencies from across the government will be able to purchase drones through the program. Agencies from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of the Interior have all had an interest in drones but ran into security challenges using Chinese-made products. Components of the DOD will also be able to also pursue production contracts through the Other Transaction Authority.

“We need an alternative to Chinese-made small drones and Blue sUAS is a first step in achieving that objective.” Mike Brown, director of the DIU, said. “Working across DOD and the U.S. government aggregates the business opportunity for these five vendors and enhances the long-term viability of this capability for the U.S. and our allies.”

The program is built around drone companies that developed their products with open software architectures so they can be used with a variety of ground hardware configurations to control them, experts supporting DIU told FedScoop before the announcement. With a highly competitive domestic drone market made of many different suppliers, Blue sUAS was designed to allow agencies to purchase drones and plug-and-play the hardware into a common software system.

“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 undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. 

Creating a pool of verified drone manufactures for government reflects other initiatives the DOD has launched. For instance, the DOD launched the Trust Capital Market to ensure the money funding startups in the national security market came from “trusted” sources. One of the first pilots in that program focused on drone companies. The marketplace is a public-private partnership that pairs investors with companies that could do work with DOD as a means to avoid “adversarial investment,” or money from foreign nations attempting to disrupt the DOD supply chain.

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China, Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), Department of Defense (DOD), drones, Drones / UAS, Ellen Lord
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