Citing security concerns, U.S. government seeks to avoid Chinese drones
On Jan. 12, the General Services Administration (GSA) announced that it will remove all but five drones from Multiple Award Schedule (MAS) contracts.
The only remaining drones will be approved by the Department of Defense (DoD) Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) through its “Blue sUAS” program.
This is part of a longstanding effort by the U.S. government to decrease and eventually eliminate, its use of Chinese drones.
Tell me more about this continuing effort...
For years, the U.S. government — particularly the DoD — has been trying to decrease their use of Chinese-manufactured drones due to security concerns.
For instance, in January of 2020, the U.S. Department of the Interior grounded its fleet of 810 drones. It also stopped procuring Chinese drones, over concerns that information about critical infrastructure could be leaked to the Chinese government.
In September of 2019, the Drone Security Act was proposed in the Senate.
This act would ban the federal government from buying or using commercial off-the-shelf drones, or other unmanned aircraft systems, manufactured or assembled by Chinese businesses.
More recently, the bill was re-introduced by Senator Rick Scott at the end of January of 2021.
The recently approved National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) does not prohibit DoD from buying or using Chinese UAS.
However, it does encourage DoD agencies to develop “mechanisms to share appropriate threat information related to the operational use of such foreign systems to appropriate Federal agencies.”
Although the U.S. government has been concerned about the security threat posed by Chinese drones for some time now, switching away from Chinese-manufactured drones is easier said than done.
For instance, a Voice of America investigation in 2019 revealed the U.S. Air Force and Navy spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Chinese-made DJI drones.
Public federal procurement records also show that, well into 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had purchased DJI drones.
Why has it taken so long to stop buying Chinese drones?
Part of the reason that government agencies have been slow to switch to non-Chinese platforms is that Chinese manufacturers — particularly DJI — dominate the commercial sUAS market.
Back in 2017, when the security concerns surrounding DJI platforms became increasingly clear, there simply weren’t many good alternatives that could compete with DJI in price and performance.
To address this, in 2018 the U.S. DoD Defense Innovation Unit — an entity that accelerates commercial technology for national defense — established the “Blue sUAS” program.
This program supports trustworthy non-Chinese drone makers.
What does the Blue sUAS program do?
Blue sUAS supported the development of trusted sUAS for the broader DoD and federal government usage.
Recently, they provided an initial list of five secure, trusted sUAS options for DoD and the federal government that meets FY2020 NDAA Section 848 requirements.
These drones are made by four US companies: Skydio, Altavian, Teal Drones, and Vantage Robotics – and one French company: Parrot.
What does removing most drones from MAS contracts do?
The General Service Administration’s Federal Supply Service (FSS) operates what is known as the federal supply schedule program.
This program leverages the purchasing power of the U.S. government to get volume discounts for commercial supplies and services. It also allows the FSS to issue indefinite-delivery contracts and publish catalogs reflecting these contracts.
These published catalogs are commonly referred to as “federal supply schedules” or simply “schedules.”
Using these schedules, government buyers may place orders directly with vendors holding these contracts. This avoids the time-consuming public bidding procedures that are otherwise needed for the procurement of supplies.
Most Federal Supply Schedules are Multiple Award Schedules (MAS). These basically become catalogs of goods that US government agencies can get with minimal bureaucratic effort.
By restricting the drone options offered within them, they can reduce the purchasing of drones that might pose a national security threat.
What does this mean for U.S. government agencies?
In recent years, sUAS has been used by federal, state, and local government agencies for an increasingly broad array of uses.
From public safety and infrastructure inspections, to environmental monitoring, search and rescue, and weather forecasting, there are seemingly endless ways in which government entities have been using drones to improve efficiency.
Because budget constraints are sometimes an issue, in some cases – such as fighting forest fires – there has been debate about whether the public safety benefit of drones outweighs the security risks of using DJI platforms.
Luckily, this new development will not have as massive an impact as one might think.
According to the GSA, the restrictions on drones that are available will affect approximately 20 existing MAS contracts by removing non-approved drones from them. This will also impact future contracts by restricting which types of drones can be acquired.
While this might hurt in the short term by decreasing the number of affordable options available to government agencies, some argue that in the long run, this move is worth it.
During a June 2019 senate hearing, National Defense University Professor Harry Wingo compared the drone security threat to that posed by Chinese telecommunication companies like Huawei.
Huawei, and others, have since been banned from purchase or use by federal agencies by vendors on federal contracts.