U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. David Feibus flies one of his team's DJI S1000 drone during the setup and calibration phase of the AFRL Commander's Challenge near Las Vegas in 2016.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. David Feibus flies one of his team's DJI S1000 drone during the setup and calibration phase of the AFRL Commander's Challenge near Las Vegas in 2016. U.S. Air Force / Wesley Farnsworth

Feds Can't Buy Chinese-Made Drones Through GSA Anymore

By Feb. 1, all but five unmanned aerial vehicles will be removed from the General Services Administration’s offerings.

The General Services Administration—the federal government’s central buyer—will no longer include drones in its suite of offerings, except those previously approved by a small innovation unit inside the Defense Department.

Citing the threat of Chinese manufacturers, GSA officials announced Tuesday the agency will be canceling contracts offering drones from all but five suppliers on the Multiple Award Schedules, the set of pre-vetted contracts that offer everything from paper clips to helicopters to data centers.

“GSA is removing all identified drones that are not approved through the [Defense Innovation Unit’s] Blue sUAS program from MAS contracts,” a GSA spokesperson told Nextgov. “Affected vendors will be notified by their contracting officer and only the identified drones will be removed from their MAS contract.”

The agency plans to have all non-DIU-approved drones removed from MAS contracts by Feb. 1, the spokesperson said.

Security experts have expressed concerns that unmanned aerial vehicles—colloquially known as drones—made in China or other adversarial countries could be used to spy on U.S. interests by exfiltrating data back to the country of origin.

“The increase of buying and usage of drones/[unmanned aerial vehicle] devices … poses a unique set of challenges and security risks such as: surveillance, theft, disruption and/or use of selective federal information or federal information networks,” according to a post on GSA’s outreach site, Interact. “Also, since China is the dominant manufacturer of drones, there is an increased risk of non-compliance with existing procurement law, including the Trade Agreements Act and Section 889 of the NDAA for FY19.”

China has long been the largest manufacturer of drones worldwide, causing supply chain questions throughout the government. The Interior Department, for example, in July 2019 approved the purchase of drones made by Chinese manufacturer DJI, only to reverse course a few months later, moving to ground all Chinese-made drones not being used for emergency situations.

“These foreign drones are exploiting us and putting ... our American businesses and government organizations at risk,” National Defense University Professor Harry Wingo told lawmakers during a June 2019 hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Security Subcommittee. “These threats should not and cannot be ignored.”

It is unclear just how much of the U.S. and global share of the drone economy is fueled by Chinese companies, though some analysts have estimated more than 75% of drones operating in the U.S. are made in Chinese factories.

During the June 2019 hearing, Wingo likened the drone security threat to that posed by Chinese telecommunication companies like Huawei and ZTE, which have since been banned from being purchased by federal agencies or used by vendors on federal contracts.

Tom Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project, offered a similar assessment.

“The United States has figured out that we need to prohibit Chinese-made 5G,” Karako told Nextgov. “There’s no telling what sort of software or backdoors could be put into such drones, and we don’t need Chinese-made drones seeded with malware flying around American airspace.”

Karako pointed to a new counter-drone strategy released by the Pentagon on Jan. 7 as the potential impetus for GSA’s latest move.

“The timing of the move makes some sense given both the broad concern about Chinese technology and the Pentagon’s new attention to small UASs,” he said. “The Pentagon, the FAA and other domestic agencies will continue to need to coordinate about threats to the homeland.”

GSA officials said the agency will remove all drone offerings from the Schedule except for five products vetted by the DOD Defense Innovation Unit’s Blue sUAS program, which launched in August.

To date, Blue sUAS has approved drones from five U.S.-based companies: Altavian, Parrot, Skydio, Teal and Vantage Robotics. Per the program website, federal buyers can purchase from these companies through production other transaction authority, or OTA, contracts or off of the GSA schedule.

“All drones other than those currently approved through DIU’s Blue sUAS Program will be removed from MAS contracts,” the Interact post states. “Additionally, a solicitation refresh in the coming months will clarify that no drones, other than Blue sUAS approved drones, will be awarded to MAS contracts at this time.”

GSA will let vendors know 30 days before the solicitation refresh is issued.

The move might just be temporary, the Interact post notes, as GSA officials are looking at developing “an appropriate risk mitigation strategy” that would enable some drone offerings to regain a place on the Schedule.

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