The camera drones developed by the Pentagon are more expensive and less capable than those of Chinese manufacture that they had to replace, according to an internal note from the US government seen by the Financial Times.
A note from Interior Department officials, who lead the U.S. government’s largest fleet of unmanned civilian ships, warns that so-called “blue drones” are not good enough to do vital conservation work.
The Pentagon has spent more than $ 13m developing drones that government agencies could use instead of those made or assembled in China. But the complaint about its cost and effectiveness illustrates the difficulties the United States has faced in trying to distance itself from Chinese technology without obvious American alternatives.
The note, written by staff in January for the incoming Biden administration, says, “Having only the” UAS Blue [unmanned aerial systems]approved, reduces the capabilities of DoI sensors by 95 percent. . . Aircraft are designed for a very specific DoD [Department of Defense] mission set and will respond to only about 20 percent of DoI mission requests. ”
He goes on to say that at an average cost of $ 2,100, drones cost between eight and 14 times more than the aircraft the department was able to purchase earlier.
In 2019, the Trump administration ground all of the department’s 810 drones because they contain all Chinese parts.
The move was part of a broader push to limit U.S. exposure to sensitive technology, including 5G equipment made by Chinese company Huawei, for fear that Beijing might use such hardware to spy.
Since the 2019 order, departmental officials have been able to resume drone flights to carry out controlled fire to prevent fires, but have not been able to buy any new aircraft or launch flights for other tasks such as and wildlife monitoring.
Meanwhile, members of Congress are debating measures that prevent federal money from being used to buy drones made or assembled in China.
The Pentagon has spent several years and millions of dollars working with private companies to develop five drones, it says, that can be used safely by government agencies.
But according to Report of the Department of Defense last year, at least four of them still contained a significant number of Chinese parts, including circuits.
A government official said the Biden administration has conducted a review of its entire civilian fleet of drones to find out which aircraft are safe to fly, but so far has not canceled the grounding order. of the Trump era.
The interior department declined to comment.
Andrew Musto, deputy director of the Defense Unit for Innovation, the Pentagon’s arm that helped develop drones, said: “These systems… Have inherited some DoD-focused capabilities that have cost implications. I recognize that these five systems are only a first step toward the rapid adoption of commercial UAS technology in government. ”
He added that the DoD was looking to lower costs and improve drone capabilities that it had helped develop to meet the needs of other departments.
While officials discuss the safety of piloting existing government drones, the DoI’s internal note warned that legally mandated conservation work is not being done.
“The current situation makes it nearly impossible for the department to comply with legislation such as the John D Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act,” he says. Among other things, that act requires the mapping and conservation of large tracts of public land.