DoD OKs companies for safe drone production to wean off reliance on China

The Defense Department is continuing to wean itself off its reliance on China by working with domestic partners to create aerial drones.

The Pentagon approved five U.S. companies for drone production as alternatives to Chinese-made systems Thursday. Altavian, Parrot SA, Skydio, Teal and Vantage Robotics are now all approved to provide small, secure drones for military and civilian agency purposes. The drones will be available for government purchase in September.

The announcement is the culmination of an 18-month effort with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which adapts commercial technologies for military use. DIU was working with the Army’s Short Range Reconnaissance program to develop inexpensive, rucksack portable, vertical takeoff and landing drones.

These types of drones have been available to consumers for about a decade, but there was no confirmation that the drones were free from foreign interference or parts.

“China had decimated our industrial base for small unmanned aerial systems, quadcopters and so forth through pricing,” Ellen Lord, DoD undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, said Thursday at the Pentagon. “What we wanted to do was come up with government standards that clearly indicated what was acceptable in terms of design and performance to meet department needs.”

Michael Kratsios, acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the program is just a start.

“The program represents a tremendous first step toward building a robust and trusted unmanned aerial systems domestic industrial base that ensures sustained delivery of highly-capable, secure UAS to the warfighters that depend on it,” Kratsios said in a statement. “It showcases how we can both work with small, nontraditional companies and our allies and partners to quickly pilot cutting-edge technologies that support our mutual defense.”

The 2020 defense authorization act prohibits the government from operating or buying Chinese drones.

Drones aren’t the only areas where DoD and the rest of the government are trying to move away from China.

The government started dropping telecommunications products made by ZTE, Huawei and a few other Chinese corporations on Aug. 13.

Under the interim rule, which remains open for comments through mid-September, agencies cannot award new contracts, task orders or modify existing contracts to any vendor who doesn’t self-certify that they are not using products from Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei.

DoD already got a pass for that rule until the end of September.

“We fully support the intent of the prohibition and we are working to ensure the rule results in the removal of these products from our supply chain,” Lord said. “The waiver provides time to review the full details of the rule implementation, using additional information from DoD.”

It provides a pass for items that are considered low risk like food, clothing, maintenance services, construction materials and other commodities that do not involve electronics.

“The waiver received is not for our major weapons systems or any support activity related to them,” Lord said. “The short-term waiver is important so that end of fiscal year activity will not be impacted. We are balancing warfighter readiness and completing end of year purchases to avoid issues with expiring funds with rule implementation for the next 45 days. DoD is not seeking a broader waiver request at this time.”

The Defense Acquisition University posted a continuing training module on its website on Aug. 8.

It targets the acquisition community and covers requirements described in the Federal Acquisition Regulation implementation guidance, exceptions and waiver processes, reporting requirements and how the rule will be enforced, Lord said.

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