Interior Department: Pentagon’s Blue sUAS drones grossly ineffective, 8-14 times costlier

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The Pentagon has spent roughly $18 million to test and identify drones that government agencies can use instead of those made or assembled in China. But how do these drones stack up against the competition? Not too well, according to an internal US government memo. The Pentagon-approved Blue sUAS drones are 8 to 14 times more expensive and only 20% as effective when it comes to vital conservation work, according to the Department of Interior (DoI).

In a seething memo sent to the incoming Biden administration in January, the DoI says that the Pentagon’s Blue sUAS program has reduced the department’s sensor capabilities by as much as 95%. The memo, which has been verified by the Financial Times, goes on to warn that the blue sUAS drones were 8 to 14 times more expensive than the aircraft the department was previously able to purchase.

From what we could find, the cheapest Blue sUAS drone with a controller starts from $7,800, while more sophisticated models can cost as high as $21,000. In contrast, DJI’s Government Edition products have an average price of $2,100. But even if cost were not an issue, it’s the capabilities of these drones that worry the DoI the most. According to the memo:

By only having the ‘Blue UAS’ approved [drones], it reduces DoI sensor capabilities by 95%… The aircraft are designed for a very specific DoD [Department of Defense] mission set and will only meet around 20% of DoI mission requirements.

With 810 drones, the DoI runs the US government’s largest fleet of civilian uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS). But, in 2020, the Trump administration grounded those drones over fears that they may be sending sensitive flight information to their China-based manufacturers, where it could be accessed by the Chinese government.

To address the elephant in the room, DJI has shared several independent cybersecurity audits that prove that no data is transferred from its products to either the Chinese government or the company itself.

However, since the grounding order, the DoI has been allowed to use its existing drone fleet only for emergency missions such as controlled burnings that prevent wildfires. Its officials cannot use China-manufactured drones for any other missions – including tracking wildfires.

What does the Interior Department use drones for?

The Interior Department started exploring drone technology back in 2004 when a UAS was used to acquire data during a volcanic event on Mount St. Helens. The broader use of drone technology at the DoI began in 2006 with scientific, environmental, and land management applications.

DoI missions are often conducted in remote areas with severe terrain and weather conditions that can be hazardous to department personnel. These missions require persistent presence and responsive deployment to address emerging events such as wildfires, earthquakes, volcanos, floods, search and rescues, etc.

Drone flights by DoI

In the fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively, the DoI drones flew 4,976, 10,342, and 11,442 flights.

The drone flights in 2020 would have crossed the 13,000-mark if it weren’t for the government order mentioned earlier that banned all non-emergency missions by the DoI. As such, the department could conduct only 3,621 flights – a 75% reduction from the projected drone use.

Why does DoI swear by its drone program?

Efficiency: The department says that the optical and thermal imaging sensors on DoI’s civilian drone fleet provide image resolution improvements of 1,200% over Landsat 8 satellite and 400% better than crewed aircraft acquired data.

Safety: From 1937 to 2000, 66% of all field biologist fatalities in DoI were aviation-related. As such, using drones has not only made DoI missions significantly more efficient but the risk of injury to personnel has also been reduced dramatically.

Time- and cost-savings: With nearly 30,000 drone flights flown to date, the DoI has observed that a drone can complete a given task in 1/7th the time and at 1/10th the cost of traditional means of accomplishing the same task.

Are Blue sUAS drones “Made in USA”?

A drone program could provide numerous benefits, but national security comes first. Right? So, as part of the Blue sUAS program, the Pentagon has cleared five non-Chinese drones for purchase by the federal government, branding them as “secure” and “trusted.”

These drones may be secure and trusted, but it’s not entirely clear whether they qualify for the Federal Trade Commission’s definition of a “Made in USA” product. According to the FTC, a drone manufacturer cannot make “Made in USA” claims unless:

  • final assembly or processing of the product occurs in the United States;
  • all significant processing that goes into the product occurs in the United States; and
  • all or virtually all components of the product are made and sourced in the United States.

So, what goes inside a Blue sUAS drone? The answer comes from the DoD’s 2020 Industrial Capabilities Report. An analysis of four Blue sUAS platforms reveals that each secure and trusted drone uses a substantial number of Chinese components.

Note that the dark blue color that matches France is a misprint and it should represent the US instead.

According to the report, fuselage structures (such as carbon fiber or plastic frames), electric motors (Neodymium Iron Boron magnets), and printed circuit board (PCB) were the top three component categories that had the most reliance on parts from China.

Read more: ‘Made in USA’ frauds to face $43K fine under new rule

While the reliance of the Blue sUAS drones on Chinese components is one part of the equation, it appears that the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon arm working on the Blue sUAS program, is aware of other limitations too. Andrew Musto, deputy director at DIU, admits:

These systems… have inherited some DoD-focused capabilities that have associated cost implications. DIU recognizes that these five systems are only a first step towards the rapid adoption of commercial UAS technology into the government.

The DIU is now trying to reduce costs and improve the capabilities of the Blue sUAS drones to meet the needs of other departments.

What’s to become of DoI’s drone program?

While various officials debate the safety of the US government’s existing drone fleet, it needs to be highlighted that the Interior Department is presently unable to carry out legally mandated conservation work that includes mapping and management of large tracts of public land. According to the internal memo:

The current situation makes it nearly impossible for the department to comply with legislation such as the John D Dingell Jr Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.

Pentagon audit clears DJI drones

Interestingly enough, in an audit conducted earlier this year, the Pentagon has cleared at least two DJI drones for US government use. The audit report’s author Adam Prater, a second chief warrant officer with the US Army Special Operations Command, states that the DJI Mavic Pro and the Matrice 600 Pro provide “no malicious code or intent” and are “recommended for use by government entities and forces working with US services.”

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the Biden administration is carrying out a review of its entire civilian drone fleet to work out which aircraft are safe to fly.

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