Camera drones developed by the Pentagon are more expensive and less capable than the Chinese-made ones they were meant to replace, according to an internal US government memo seen by the Financial Times.
The memo from officials at the interior department, which runs the US government’s largest fleet of civilian unmanned craft, warns the so-called “Blue drones” are not good enough to carry out vital conservation work.
The Pentagon spent over $13m developing drones which government agencies could use instead of ones made or assembled in China. But the complaint about their cost and effectiveness illustrates the difficulties the US has faced trying to wean itself off Chinese technology without obvious American alternatives.
The memo, penned by staff in January for the incoming Biden administration, says: “By only having the ‘Blue UAS [unmanned aerial systems]’ approved, it reduces DoI sensor capabilities by 95 per cent . . . The aircraft are designed for a very specific DoD [Department of Defense] mission set and will only meet around 20 per cent of DoI mission requirements.”
It goes on to warn that with an average cost of $2,100, the drones cost between eight and 14 times more than the aircraft the department was previously able to purchase.
In 2019, the Trump administration grounded every one of the department’s 810 drones because they all contained Chinese parts.
The move was part of a broader push to limit US exposure to sensitive technology, including 5G equipment made by the Chinese company Huawei, for fear that Beijing could use such hardware for spying.
Since the 2019 order, departmental officials have been able to resume drone flights for carrying out controlled burning to prevent wildfires, but have not been able to buy any new aircraft or launch flights for other tasks such as tracking wildlife.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, are debating measures that would bar federal money from being used to purchase 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 can safely be used by government agencies.
But according to a Department of Defense report last year, at least four of them still contain a significant number of Chinese parts, including circuit boards.
One government official said the Biden administration is carrying out a review of its entire civilian drone fleet to work out which aircraft are safe to fly, but it has not so far rescinded the Trump-era grounding order.
The interior department declined to comment.
Andrew Musto, deputy director at the Defense Innovation Unit, the arm of the Pentagon that helped develop the drones, said: “These systems . . . have inherited some DoD-focused capabilities that have associated cost implications. DIU recognises that these five systems are only a first step towards rapid adoption of commercial UAS technology into the government.”
He added that the DoD was trying to decrease costs and improve the capabilities of the drones it had helped develop to meet the needs of other departments.
While officials debate the safety of flying the government’s existing drones, the DoI’s internal memo warned that legally mandated conservation work is not being carried out.
“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,” it says. Among other things, that act mandates the mapping and conservation of large tracts of public land.