Defense Innovation Unit moves to ease commercial drone certifications

Defense Innovation Unit moves to ease commercial drone certifications

SAN DIEGO — The Defense Innovation Unit wants to improve its process for vetting commercial drones, with the goal of making it easier for companies to sell their systems to the U.S. military.

Director Doug Beck said April 23 the organization will host a competitive effort this fall aimed at onboarding more commercial drones through its Blue UAS certification, which validates that the systems are cybersecure and include no technology made by Chinese suppliers.

“It’s all about adding more capability and also finding ways to help reduce costs while do that so we can help go increase scale and also give more opportunities to more folks out there to be on the list,” Beck said during the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International conference in San Diego.

Small commercial drones, a broad category of uncrewed aircraft that includes those weighing less than 55 pounds, have played a more prominent role in military conflicts in recent years — including in Ukraine and Russia as well as the Middle East. As the market for these capabilities has grown, particularly in China, the U.S. government has been increasingly concerned about the security of the technology and the possibility that data collected by these systems could be shared with adversaries.

DIU established Blue UAS in 2020, after a series of congressional mandates blocked the Pentagon from buying or using certain drone components — like cameras, data transmission devices, radios and flight controllers — made by Chinese companies. At the time, the only option for units that wanted access to private sector drones was to go through a labor-intensive exemption process to secure a waiver that lasts only six months before needing to be re-submitted.

Blue UAS was designed to create another avenue for validation through a more streamlined process. Drones verified by DIU are included on its Blue list and made available for the military services to buy as well as other government users. Over the last four years, DIU has added 15 systems to the list and has created a parallel inventory of approved components and software through an effort it calls framework.

The process has since become the de facto government standard, with many agencies outside of DOD deferring to the list for their own small, uncrewed system purchases. As a result, demand for Blue has far surpassed DIU’s resources, limiting the number of systems it can process and making it harder for private sector drone companies to sell to the government.

Trent Emeneker, who leads Blue UAS for DIU, told C4ISRNET the organization has heard feedback from DOD and commercial firms alike who say the process is lacking on multiple levels. Military units say the list doesn’t provide the types of systems the military most urgently needs and companies — even those trying to reach non-defense agencies — say there are too many financial and procedural hoops to jump through to get on it.

“We’re not delivering what the warfighter needs today, period,” he said. “But we’re doing everything we can to fix that, to try to solve the problem.”

Refreshing the list

This fall’s refresh of the Blue list is one way to do that, Emeneker said, noting that he expects it to become an annual opportunity for new systems to join the list and for those not providing military utility to be taken off.

“The list does not need to be static because, frankly, the market is going to tell us what’s good — the market being the end users. If they’re not buying it and using it, then it’s not what they want and we don’t need to keep it around,” he said.

As it looks to reopen the list, Emeneker said DIU will consider factors like cost, capability, modularity and security as well as a company’s willingness to work with other partners.

“Closed, proprietary solutions are in generally not going to be looked at very favorably,” he said during a speech at the AUVSI conference. “This is a place where modularity and interoperability — you just can’t succeed in this space without them. Nobody has the one solution to everything.”

He noted that while the refresh is open to any company, Blue will continue to process other drones sponsored by military units or that are part of a program of record.

Another change DIU is making is to its process for approving software updates to Blue systems. Today, it can take between 30 and 45 days to sign off on software changes, but the organization wants to reduce that to four days or less, according to Emeneker.

To do this, DIU is working with a third party vendor to validate a company’s software code as it’s being written and updated.

“96 hours is still too long,” he told C4ISRNET. “But we are listening.”

DIU is also growing its list of certified Blue components to give companies more options for what they can install on their drones and to provide greater transparency about which hardware has been approved.

The organization this week signed a memorandum of agreement with the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International, a trade organization that last year created a Green UAS process designed to offload some of the demand for Blue.

Green UAS targets civil and commercial drones that are designed for non-DoD customers that don’t have the same stringent, defense-specific requirements. The MOU will allow better information sharing between AUVSI and DIU and creates a pathway for including Green-certified hardware on the Blue list.

While the Green list has been in place for more than a year, many federal and local agencies still want the uncrewed systems they buy to be certified through DIU’s process. Emeneker said the hope is that a stronger partnership with AUVSI will help communicate that the Green List is a viable option for these agencies.

“Part of our goal is to help communicate that it is a standardized and solid verification process,” he said. “The Blue list is a stamp of approval. We also want to help encourage the Green list to be thought of in the same way. These are different market segments to a certain extent, different people, but they all help achieve the same goal.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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