GSA adds American-made, defense drones to schedule

Through the  Defense Innovation Unit’s  Blue sUAS initiative, five U.S.-manufactured drone configurations are providing secure options for military and civilian agencies.

Five manufacturers of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) have joined the General Services Administration’s Schedule after proving their products to be secure, trustworthy and American-made.

The approval marks the end of an 18-month effort between the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and the Army’s Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) program of record for sUAS, which is developing rapidly deployable drones with situational awareness tools. The five companies whose products will be available are Altavian, Parrot, Skydio, Teal and Vantage Robotics.

A spinoff effort at DIU called Blue sUAS builds on SRR’s success to create sUAS that provide alternative ground controller and radio configurations to accommodate users governmentwide, not just those with the Defense Department, according to DIU.

“These companies have been able to leverage the roughly $18 million in DOD investments to develop spinoff enterprise solutions to offer secure, domestically produced options to enterprise customers worldwide, ultimately adding a much-needed boost to the U.S. sUAS industrial base,” Chris Bonzagni, sUAS subject-matter expert at DIU, said in a written response to GCN.

Both SRR and Blue sUAS comply with the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that prohibits the operation or procurement of drones made in China.

Recognizing a need for drones that government agencies, including the military, could use, Vantage applied to be part of Blue sUAS and tweaked its Vesper unmanned aerial vehicle for federal agency use.

Vesper, developed for DIU, differs from Vantage’s first-generation drone, Snap, in that it is “substantially more advanced in just about every way,” including sensors, flight capabilities, security and materials, said Vantage CEO Tobin Fisher.

“To be specific, on the sensor side, we developed a camera that can see in the dark in 4K and integrated a thermal sensor as well as 18x zoom,” Fisher said. Additionally, Vesper can fly for 50 minutes and features an extended radio range with an AES 256-encrypted 5-mile link.

Vesper is made with components from trusted sources, which Fisher said includes Qualcomm for the onboard processor, Microhard for the radio and SigmaTron International for assembly.

“Anything that processes, transmits, stores or displays information is all from a non-Chinese source,” he said. “We maintain control of every bit of software that goes onto the system, and we have what’s called the secure bootloader that makes sure the software was not tampered with in any way,” he said. All data is stored onboard and product goes through several security scans and penetration tests to ensure no backdoors or ports are left open that an adversary could use to gain control of the aircraft. Any data that is transmitted is “AES 256-encrypted to make sure it would be extremely challenging to access,” he said.

What’s more, Vesper is designed to be flown in protected air space, so it is capable in GPS-denied environments and features visual inertial odometry for position control should GPS get jammed.

Cybersecurity is a critical part of the Blue sUAS program. “DIU has worked closely with the applicable sUAS policy owners within the DOD to ensure Blue sUAS platforms are compliant with current policy and guidance,” Bonzagni said. The Air Force, Navy,  Marine Corps]and Defense Digital Service have “taken a thorough, multi-organizational approach to cybersecurity testing with the goal being to identify and mitigate cyber threats and provide Authority To Operate (ATO) packages for each system that can be used reciprocally across the services,”  he said.

Although Vantage developed the government version of Vesper with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in mind -- specifically the ability to get situational awareness in all conditions – it has a variety of use cases. For instance, it can be used for safety inspections or search-and-rescue missions, or by the National Forest or National Parks services for fighting forest fires.

“Blue sUAS represents a tremendous first step toward building a robust and trusted UAS domestic industrial base that ensures sustained delivery of highly capable, secure UAS to the warfighters that depend on it,” Michael Kratsios, DOD's acting undersecretary for research and engineering, said in a statement.

This article first appeared on GCN, a Defense Systems partner site.