After Initial Ban, Pentagon Approves 5 Small Commercial Drones for Troops

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Marine rifleman releases a drone
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. James R. Fiers, Jr., a rifleman with Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), releases a drone during a live-fire platoon attack on Camp Lejeune, N.C., Jan. 17, 2018. (Tojyea G. Matally/U.S. Marine Corps)

The Pentagon has given the green light for military units to purchase small drones from five companies following a monthslong review aimed at ending the military's reliance on emerging tech made in China.

Earlier this month, the Defense Department's Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) approved small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) made by Altavian, Parrot, Skydio, Teal, and Vantage Robotics for use in the field, according to a release. The drones fall under DIU's "Blue sUAS" program, officials said.

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"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 Defense Innovation Unit, said in the release. "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."

In 2017, the Army issued a memo prohibiting the use of commercial drones made by the most popular manufacturer, Chinese company DJI, over security concerns. Less than a year later, the Pentagon quietly prohibited the purchase of all small commercial drones for the same reason, although it allowed for exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis in response to urgent operational needs. For example, Air Force Special Operations Command at the time said they were using the tech for systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; terrain mapping; and airfield surveys.

That Pentagon ban followed a May 14 Defense Department Inspector General report that found military units did not have sufficient procedures to evaluate or detect cybersecurity risks associated with using the drone systems -- some of which are produced by Chinese companies and could be embedded with malware. DoD was later obligated under Section 848 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to stop "operating or procuring unmanned aircraft systems manufactured in China," the release said.

The new move to greenlight five specific drone models represents a move to standardize safe use of the technology across the military.

While small drones have been used on the battlefield for years to give troops a birds-eye view of potential incoming threats, the Pentagon said it did not have opportunities "to adopt these systems safely," the recent release said. The new effort further builds off of lessons from the Army's Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) program, which gives troops an inexpensive, rucksack-portable option, it said.

Specifically, the drones that have been OKed for purchase next month include Skydio's X2-D; Parrot's Anafi USA; Altavian's M440 Ion; Teal Drones' Golden Eagle and Vantage Robotics' Vesper, according to a report from The Verge.

The latest approval closely follows another decision from the Pentagon regarding drone use.

In June, an Army-led team overseeing the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, published an initial list of the best usable counter-drone technologies to destroy or deter quadcopters and other unmanned systems that pose a threat to troops and bases overseas.

The team authorized seven defensive countermeasures out of 40 systems "needed to primarily detect, access, and engage with enemy drones," the service said in a release.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214

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