DJI may be synonymous with “drone,” but after the US Armed Forces, the Pentagon, and the Department of the Interior started banning and grounding Chinese models over spying fears, it created a vacuum in the market for a drone the United States government could trust.
But the US Department of Defense may already be filling that hole. It just wrapped up a program designed to find more palatable drones — one that actually kicked off in November 2018, arguably long before the tensions with China boiled over.
Today, the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit is announcing not one, not two, but five such drones that have been tested, approved, and are now formally available for government use — including ones from formerly consumer-focused drone companies Skydio and Vantage (each based in California) and Parrot (based in France).
The five DIU-approved drones are:
Note that there’s nothing that necessarily kept these companies from selling drones to the US government before now. Skydio, for instance, tells The Verge that it’s already shipped some units of the X2-D to “early access customers” and has other deals in the works.
“It’s one of the first time we...really feel comfortable saying that.”
But after working with these five companies for the past 18 months — helping them tweak their airframes, weed out potential Chinese components, perform cybersecurity penetration testing, and standardize on communication protocols and controls — and certifying each one, the DIU believes these specific drones are actually ready for government work. “It’s one of the first times we as the federal government have said that and really feel comfortable saying that,” says DIU project manager Matthew Borowski.
Another benefit of the program: they’ll be on the GSA schedule, which means government agencies should be able to buy them in bulk for a discount.
The US Army may wind up being one of those bulk customers. The current plan is that one of these five drones will be chosen to fulfill an order that could see every platoon in the Army fielding them sometime in the next six months, according to DIU project manager Chris Bonzagni.
The general idea is that every echelon of the US Army might have a different kind of drone it can use — including “soldier-borne sensors” like the pocket-sized FLIR Black Hornet for each squad, a “short range reconnaissance” drone for every platoon, and fixed-wing (think airplane, not quadcopter) Raven and Puma drones at the company and battalion levels. Today’s drones are all candidates for that short-range reconnaissance (SRR) contract, specifically.
(Speaking of FLIR, it racked up $60 million in Army contracts for the Black Hornet as of May, and it also provides the Hadron thermal camera module used in at least two of the new drones featured today. An Army spokesperson tells The Verge that most units should have the “soldier borne sensors” by 2027.)
As you can see in the image above, the basic performance requirements for the SRR program weren’t too strenuous compared to existing consumer-grade drones — but that doesn’t mean the SRR candidates are consumer-grade.
Even the Parrot Anafi, whose consumer version retails for $700, now has a three-camera array with both thermal imaging and a claimed 32x digital zoom, is sealed so it can fly in the rain, and has special antennas so it can be controlled and communicate over DoD frequency bands. Each drone also had to weigh less than three pounds and “take less than 2 minutes to assemble and fit inside a soldier’s standard-issue rucksack.”
They’ll also have premium price tags: $14,000 for a complete Parrot Anafi system, or $16K with an additional military radio link, and between $10,000 and $20,000 for a complete Skydio X2-D.
That DoD radio tweak applies to all of these drones, as does standardization on the MAVLink protocol and open-source PX4 flight software for most of them, so military and other government agencies can also standardize on whatever kind of controller they’d prefer. (Skydio tells The Verge that it will still offer its own proprietary self-flying “autonomy” system, though, instead of PX4.) We’re also glad to report the Parrot will have a new controller, unlike the one we disliked in our original Parrot Anafi and Skydio 2 reviews.
We’ve previously written about how Skydio and Parrot’s potential pivots to military and industrial drones were intriguing — Parrot actually followed through — and the DIU is taking some of the credit for helping these companies push beyond the consumer market. The unit points out that each company received millions from the US government to help build military-grade drones, and each wound up with an enterprise variant too. Skydio does challenge that a bit, though, telling us that the DoD benefited from its expertise as well — and that the $4 million it recently received under the Defense Production Act was simply used to “fund incremental R&D projects on next-gen technologies,” not create the X2.
By the way, you might be interested to know that DJI was never in the running for this program at all. While Trump didn’t technically sign the National Defense Authorization Act that prohibited government purchases of “foreign-made unmanned aircraft systems” until last December — where “foreign” explicitly means “China,” just to be clear — the DIU says the Chinese company never bothered to apply.
Update, 3:11 PM ET: Added mention that Vantage used to be a consumer-focused drone company too! I forgot all about the Snap.
Update, 8:40 PM ET: Added comment from an Army spokesperson about the timeline for soldier-borne sensors.
Correction, August 21st: Skydio tells The Verge that the X2-D will not standardize on PX4 control software after all, but instead its own self-flying Autonomy software. It will, however, include the DoD radios.