DJI may be synonymous with “drone,” but after the US Armed Forces, the Pentagon, and the Department of the Interior started banning and grounding Chinese models over spying fears, it created a vacuum in the market for a drone the United States government could trust.
But the US Department of Defense may already be filling that hole. It just wrapped up a program designed to find more palatable drones — one that actually kicked off in November 2018, arguably long before the tensions with China boiled over.
Today, the DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit is announcing not one, not two, but five such drones that have been tested, approved, and are now formally available for government use — including two from formerly consumer-focused drone companies Skydio (based in California) and Parrot (based in France).
The five DIU-approved drones are:
Skydio’s X2-D Parrot’s Anafi USA Altavian’s M440 Ion Teal Drones’ Golden Eagle Vantage Robotics’ Vesper
Note that there’s nothing that necessarily kept these companies from selling drones to the US government before now. Skydio, for instance, tells The Verge that it’s already shipped some units of the X2-D to “early access customers” and has other deals in the works.
As you can see in the image above, the basic performance requirements for the SRR program weren’t too strenuous compared to existing consumer-grade drones — but that doesn’t mean the SRR candidates are consumer-grade.
Even the Parrot Anafi, whose consumer version retails for $700, now has a three-camera array with both thermal imaging and a claimed 32x digital zoom, is sealed so it can fly in the rain, and has special antennas so it can be controlled and communicate over DoD frequency bands. Each drone also had to weigh less than three pounds and “take less than 2 minutes to assemble and fit inside a soldier’s standard-issue rucksack.”
They’ll also have premium price tags: $14,000 for a complete Parrot Anafi system, or $16K with an additional military radio link, and between $10,000 and $20,000 for a complete Skydio X2-D.
That DoD radio tweak applies to all of these drones, as does standardization on the MAVLink protocol and open-source PX4 flight software, so military and other government agencies can also standardize on whatever kind of controller they’d prefer. (We’re glad to report the Parrot will have a new controller, unlike the one we disliked in our original Parrot Anafi and Skydio 2 reviews.)
We’ve previously written about how Skydio and Parrot’s potential pivots to military and industrial drones were intriguing — Parrot actually followed through — and the DIU is taking some of the credit for helping these companies push beyond the consumer market. The unit points out that each company received millions from the US government to help build military-grade drones, and each wound up with an enterprise variant too. Skydio does challenge that a bit, though, telling us that the DoD benefited from its expertise as well — and that the $4 million it recently received under the Defense Production Act was simply used to “fund incremental R&D projects on next-gen technologies,” not create the X2.
By the way, you might be interested to know that DJI was never in the running for this program at all. While Trump didn’t technically sign the National Defense Authorization Act that prohibited “foreign-made unmanned aircraft systems” until last December — where “foreign” explicitly means “China,” just to be clear — the DIU says the Chinese company never bothered to apply.