To say that China dominates the commercial drone market is to vastly overestimate the size of the non-Chinese drone companies. For insurgent groups that want cheap access to aerial photography, this is fine. For professional militaries that want to include cheap drones, without opening themselves up to more cybersecurity vulnerabilities, this poses a major challenge. All of this is what makes the Department of the Interior’s recent purchase of drones from California-based 3D Robotics so intriguing.
The contract is modest: $289,000, for an order that appears to be just 109 quadcopters. That would place the drones at about $2,100 apiece, or about twice what the company initially offered the drones for in 2015. Depending on accessories, it puts the 3DR Solo drone in a similar price point to the higher-end models of DJI’s Phantom 4 quadcopter. As ably documented by Sally French, 3D Robotics has struggled to stay competitive, and most commercial clients have moved on.
A 2018 survey found that DJI alone accounts for 74 percent of the market share, and only two other brands have more share than simply making a drone from spare parts. 3D Robotics is not one of those brands.
But the Pentagon itself has put new obstacles in the way of using Chinese-made drones. In August 2017, the Army ordered an immediate halt to the use of DJI drones, citing cyber vulnerabilities. By May 2018, the Pentagon had extended that ban to include the entire military, and to include all variety of commercial drones. In June, that ban was specifically applied to the InstantEye quadcopters used by the Marine Corps, while the cybersecurity vulnerability review continues.
The cybersecurity needs and risks of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense are hardly identical. But if Interior finds the California-made drones reliable, having another quadcopter producer stateside that designs drones for a government customer could be a win for the Pentagon. The Defense Department would get the advantages of commercial drones without adding unnecessary risk. Even if those drones come in a little less cheaply.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.