Are US-Made Drones Too Expensive?

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The Pentagon-developed camera drones are more expensive and less capable than the Chinese-made ones that they were supposed to replace, according to an internal US government memorandum seen by the Financial Times.

The memo written in January for the incoming Biden administration by officials at the interior department warned the “Blue drones” were not good enough to carry out vital conservation work. 

The Pentagon spent more than $13m developing drones that government agencies could use instead of those made or assembled in China. 

The complaint about the devices’ cost and effectiveness illustrates the difficulties the US has faced trying to wean itself off Chinese technology without obvious domestic alternatives. 

The memo warned that with an average price of $2,100, the cost of the drones was 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 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 to carry out controlled burning to prevent wildfires, but have not been able to buy any aircraft or launch flights for other tasks, such as tracking wildlife.

The interior department declined to comment.