Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord highlighted the Defense Innovation Unit’s (DIU) Blue sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems) project as a stepping stone toward a stronger U.S. drone industrial base, which she said is needed to counter China’s dominance in the sUAS market.

“We know that the volume of Chinese small UAS exports will continue to increase unless there’s a shift in Chinese dominance in the market share,” Lord said in a Heritage Foundation virtual event on Sept. 10. “Furthermore, we are extremely concerned about data exfiltration from these Chinese UAS.”

Five drones under the DIU’s Blue sUAS project will be available to federal, state, and local governments through the Government Services Administration (GSA) catalog later this month, she said. The drones are the Florida-based Altavian‘s IONM440C, the ANAFI USA drone by the French company Parrot, the California-based Skydio‘s X2, the Utah-based Teal Drones‘ Golden Eagle, and the California-based Vantage Robotics‘ Vesper drone.

“Our Blue small UAS program is the culmination of 18 months of work by the Army and the Defense Innovation Unit to tailor the best technology from U.S. and allied companies to develop inexpensive small UAS–defined as Group 1 and 2 UAS, which are under 55 lbs–for the warfighter,” Lord said.

The Blue sUAS program “represents a significant first step toward building a robust and trusted UAS domestic industrial base that really will ensure sustained delivery of highly capable, secure UAS to the warfighters that depend on it,” she said.

Last year, China’s D-Mada Jiang Innovations (DJI), held a 70 percent share of the global commercial drone market, including a 77 percent share in the United States, according to a Heritage Foundation report last month. The market is expected to grow to $43.1 billion by 2024, per Heritage.

Founded in 2006, DJI began flooding the market “around 2013” with deeply discounted drones manufactured in high volumes, Lord said.

Under Section 848 of last year’s National Defense Reauthorization Act, DoD may not enter into or renew a contract for the procurement of UAS or any related services from countries in “covered” countries, including China. Lord said that state and local law enforcement agencies, who frequently bought DJI drones because of their ease of use and customer support, may buy the Blue sUAS drones or call her office with any questions about how best to protect their agencies from exploitation of their data using the DJI drones.

“My team will continue to work with the DoD research and engineering team and our industry partners on future Blue small UAS projects as well as programs to support the development of larger and more technologically capable systems that DoD and our nation require to remain competitive and outpace our competitors in this space,” Lord said.

China’s drones have held the cheap hardware advantage, in addition to employing advanced surveillance technologies, and Heritage analysts said that China has used those technologies in crack downs against Muslim Uyghurs and their exile to re-education camps in the Xianjiang region of northwest China. Yet, U.S. companies have been able to develop such software as well.

“Clearview AI, a U.S. start-up company, introduced technology in 2019 that uses artificial intelligence to compare an uploaded photo against a database of billions of images compiled from social media sites, like Facebook and YouTube, to find a match, often in milliseconds,” per the Heritage report. “It has been used by the U.S. Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, and hundreds of state and local police agencies, and the entire process can be accomplished on a smartphone.”

The Heritage report raised the prospect that DJI drones could collect information on “the precise location of critical infrastructure and sensitive information, such as the locations of civic leaders, their movements, and interactions” in cities.

“If that data fell into the wrong hands—or was even collected by an entity with hostile intent—it could be used against individuals, officials, and agencies in ways that far exceed the benefits of those systems,” per the report. “Compounding this concern is the fact that the vast majority of drones used by law enforcement and first responder agencies, more than 970, are manufactured in China, and the way many of those systems were ‘introduced’ to U.S. law enforcement agencies is troubling.”

DJI donated 100 drones to 45 law enforcement and first responder organizations in 22 states “in a good will ‘disaster relief program’ to combat the COVID-19 crisis on April 1, 2020,” Heritage said. “Those ‘gifts’ are now being used in major metropolitan areas to monitor social distancing, fevers, and coughs among the public—as well as broadcasting messages to homeless encampments and to enforce stay-at-home orders. While this type of surveillance is common in China, it has rightfully raised privacy and civil liberties concerns in the U.S.”