DOD Looks to Grow Small UAS Market Through Public-Private Partnerships

An unmanned aircraft system hovers in the air during a live-demonstration at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, on June 30, 2017. Air Force photo by SSgt. Benjamin Gonsie.

The Pentagon wants to grow its pool of companies that can build small drones for military use through a new public-private marketplace, according to Defense Department acquisition chief Ellen Lord.

The Trusted Capital Marketplace “will convene trusted sources of private capital with innovative companies critical to the defense industrial base and national security,” Lord said at an Aug. 26 briefing. It will first focus on small unmanned aerial systems so the Pentagon can get away from commercially made drones that could pass US data to China.

Small unmanned aircraft are a good first candidate for the DOD marketplace because the American supply is “eroded” and the product is well known.

“We don’t have much of a small UAS industrial base because [Chinese technology company] DJI dumped so many low-price quadcopters on the markets,” Lord said. “We then became dependent on them, both from the defense point of view and the commercial point of view, and we know that a lot of the information is sent back to China from those. So it’s not something that we can use.”

Lord said she couldn’t disclose the companies that are part of the marketplace or how much money is at stake.

Groups across the Pentagon are already pursuing small, fixed-wing UAS and quadcopters for uses ranging from combat swarms, to intelligence-gathering, to scouting out runways in atypical locations. The military is also developing and deploying multiple technologies to protect its assets from armed or spying UAS as the cheap, accessible drones proliferate around the globe.

“If we meet our defense needs, we feel that there are simpler versions that would be very, very attractive for the commercial market, as well,” Lord added of small UAS. “So there was a great pathway there for industry.”

Unmanned aircraft are just one topic in a list of areas for which DOD wants to create a secure supply chain through the marketplace. The department aims to hold events at cities around the country to bring funders together with industry representatives every couple of months, then provide a way for both sides to work together.

Officials initially expected a website would be that conduit between the development and funding stakeholders, but are instead turning to in-person meetings.

The marketplace comes as the Pentagon tries new ways of tapping into the rapidly evolving commercial technology sector to expand its options, save money, and move faster. The department also wants to reap the benefits of the partnerships it’s creating—a goal of the Air Force’s AFWERX innovation group as well.

“What we’re working on right now is how we, as DOD, can invest a little bit in many of these companies as well, so they could be branded as having DOD contracts,” Lord said. “We think that would be helpful.”