The US Army throws $20 million into AI-equipped, foldable quadcopters

In a bid to avoid foreign made off-the-shelf drones.
Ameya Paleja
The X2D in action.Skydio/YouTube

The U.S. Army has awarded a $20 million a year contract to a California-based drone manufacturer, named Skydio, as part of its efforts to move away from foreign-made and commercially available off-the-shelf drones. Skydio revealed in a press release that it would supply its X2D drones for the U.S. Army's Short Range Reconnaissance (SSR) Program. 

With an aim to equip its soldiers with rapidly deployable aerial solutions that can conduct reconnaissance and surveillance activities over short ranges, the Army's SSR program has been considering small drones for some time now. More than 30 vendors submitted their proposals to the Army, and five finalists were shortlisted for rigorous testing. 

The Drive accessed a federal contract from 2017 that listed the minimal specifications of the SSR program which include a flight time of 30 minutes, a range of 1.86 nautical miles (3 km), and the ability to tolerate winds up to 15 knots. With the singular purpose of reconnaissance, the drone does not need to have swappable payloads but it should support mapping missions and the ability to geotag imagery. 

Skydio's offering

Skydio's X2D drone features dual color optical thermal sensors capable of capturing 4K videos and is equipped with GPS-based night flight, making it a versatile fit for round-the-clock operations. The 35 minute flight time comes with a top speed of 25 mph (40 kph) and artificial intelligence features such as obstacle avoidance and subject detection. 

While its lightweight configuration is making it user-friendly, the drone also weighs just under three pounds (1.3 kg), and has the ability to fold itself and reduce its dimensions to half its flight size. A folded drone can be readied for deployment in under 75 seconds, the company claims. 

The controller weighs a few hundred grams less than the drone itself and comes with a screen that can relay videos at 720p as it communicates with the drone within a four-mile (6 km) range.  

In addition to its technical capabilities, an important consideration that is likely to have favored Skydio is that its drones are "designed, assembled, and supported" in the U.S. In 2017, the U.S. Army had banned the use of drones from the commercial entity, DJI due to security concerns and went a step further last year to ban drones or their subsystems that are sourced from adversarial countries. 

However, this is not the first purchase of small drones that the U.S. Army has made. In June 2020, the Army had also placed an order for pocket-sized drones that barely weighed an ounce (33 g) and offered a flight time of up to 25 minutes 

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