WASHINGTON — The long-term viability of a Defense Innovation Unit effort to vet commercial drones for military use and make it easier for the services to buy of off-the-shelf technology may be hampered by a lack of stable funding.
DIU, a Pentagon organization that partners with the military services to field commercial technology, created Blue UAS in 2020 to establish a streamlined process for the Department of Defense to certify U.S.-made drones for military use. Without it, agencies who want to buy commercially available small UAS would have to work with an established DoD program or seek a waiver — an arduous, time-consuming process.
In the last few years, Blue UAS has become the government standard for certifying drones that meet federal cybersecurity and supply chain requirements. It has also helped foster the development of US-made, compliant drone components and software.
This week, DIU announced it closed out the second phase of the effort after moving 17 drones from 11 companies through its vetting process. Now on the Blue UAS “cleared list,” those systems — which offer a range of military applications from base defense to search and rescue to ISR — are available on the federal supply schedule, which allows DoD and other government users to purchase them.
Among the companies on the cleared list are California-based Inspired Flight and Florida-based Harris Aerial. Both companies had two drones cleared through DIU’s process.
A growing role for commercial drones
Small commercial drones — a broad category of UAS that includes systems weighing less than 55 pounds — have played a more prominent role in military conflicts in recent years. Ground troops in Russia and Ukraine have used them for surveillance and visibility and ISIS militants used armed versions to attack U.S. forces fighting in northern Iraq in 2016.
As the commercial drone market has grown, particularly in China, the U.S. government has been increasingly concerned about the security of the technology and the possibility that data collected by these systems could be shared with U.S. adversaries.
In 2018, DoD banned the military from buying commercial drones unless they secured a waiver. The exemption process is labor-intensive and the eventual approval lasts only six months before needing to be re-submitted. The following year, with the passage of the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress added more constraints, blocking the military from buying or using certain drone components, including cameras, data transmission devices, radios, flight controllers and gimbals made by Chinese companies.
The ban was signed into law just after the U.S. Army had chosen a handful of prototype systems for its Short Range Reconnaissance program, which sought a small quadcopter drone to provide ISR support. With the new requirements in place, the service now had to ensure the five drones selected for its program were compliant with DoD and congressional policy.
At the time, DIU had already launched an initiative to expand the marketplace of domestically produced drone components and software that meet cybersecurity requirements. As it worked with the Army to identify commercial candidates for its quadcopter program, the organization saw a need for a streamlined approval process that didn’t require organizations to renew their waivers. So, DIU created the first iteration of the Blue UAS Cleared List to vet the five prototype systems.
David Michelson, a program manager at DIU, told C4ISRNET the experience not only underscored the need for a better process, but it highlighted the potential for commercial drones to meet military needs.
“Throughout that process, we realized that there is just so much that goes into this ecosystem on all different levels,” he said. “Small drones can fit that huge swath of mission sets that are out there and there were commercially available solutions already for some of those mission sets.”
Following its work with the Army, DIU set out to expand the number of cleared drones and refine its vetting process through a second phase. The program has received $35 million to fund Blue UAS 2.0 and for the hardware development work it’s conducted to date.
Companies who have moved through the Blue UAS process say it has helped accelerate their work with the government.
Larry Berkin, chief commercial and operating officer of California-based dronemaker FlightWave, told C4ISRNET that Blue UAS has offered his company “a stamp of approval” for would-be government customers. FlightWave’s flagship vehicle, the Edge 130, was vetted as part of Blue UAS 2.0 and added to the cleared list earlier this month.
“As a small company, it’s a very good thing for us,” Berkin said. “It opens up an alternative procurement cycle and procurement channels for us to sell into these large federal agencies that typically would not purchase from a small company.”
Skydio, a leading U.S. drone manufacturer, has participated in Blue UAS 1.0 and 2.0. CEO Adam Bry told C4ISRNET in an email that while DIU’s vetting process was rigorous, it has opened opportunities “across the Federal customer base” without requiring the company to go through a separate certification process with each agency.
Democratizing the process
While DIU’s work to create a pathway for government agencies to access compliant commercial technology has been successful, Michelson said the program isn’t sized to meet the demand it’s seeing. He noted that while Blue UAS is tailored for DoD, it’s drawn interest from state and local governments, not to mention federal agencies like the Department of Interior and Department of Justice.
“It’s a good problem to have, but we need a solution,” he said. “Our funnel isn’t big enough, and we’re not resourced to be able to certify all the systems that could possibly exist for any agency or user out there.”
One way DIU hopes to address the problem is through partnerships. The organization is working with the Association of Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International — a nonprofit focused on advancing uncrewed systems and robotics — to adapt the Blue UAS model for non-DoD agencies.
Michael Robbins, AUVSI’s executive vice president of government and public affairs, told C4ISRNET in an interview the goal is for companies to move through its process “and to come out on the other side with the same degree of trust in the system as they would had they gone through that process with DIU directly.”
DIU is also reaching out to the military services to find additional funding and work with them to continue some of the Blue UAS work in house. Like most of its projects, the effort doesn’t have its own budget, but instead works with DoD agencies for funding. While that arrangement is what helps funnel commercial technology into formal programs, it also makes it hard to sustain an effort like Blue UAS.
“I think we are making the right moves and the DoD is moving forward,” DIU program manager Matthew Borowski said in an interview. “But there are many things that keep us from making progress — and one of them really is putting the right amount of attention and resources towards solving the problem.”
The office is planning to ramp up its outreach efforts in hopes that it can “export” parts of the program throughout DoD. That includes creating an instruction manual for on-ramping cleared drone technology.
“We want to give other organizations and other units the opportunity to do the same thing that we’re doing, so they can leverage their funding and they can leverage their resources,” Michelson said. “We want to try to democratize the process.”
With Blue UAS 2.0 completed, DIU is also making plans for the program’s next phase. The details are still in the works, but Michelson said networking and interoperability will likely be a focus, due in part to lessons DoD has learned about Ukraine’s use of networked drones over the last year.
“What we’re seeing is even though the Ukrainians are building their drone program on a shoestring — on Band-Aids and bubble gum — they’re building their own networks. They are building their own interconnectivity,” he said. “And they’re finding ways for their systems to be as interoperable as they possibly can.”
More networked drones drives a need for interoperable hardware, like fight controllers and payloads. Michelson said a future phase of Blue UAS could help get after that challenge. DIU has identified some potential funding sources for the effort, which it hopes to launch later this year, but the scope will depend on what resources and partnerships the organization can secure.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.