MURRAY — A Utah-based specialty drone manufacturer is one of only five companies that made it to an exclusive group approved to provide compact high-tech remote vehicles to U.S. government entities, according to a U.S. Department of Defense announcement Thursday.
The news comes on the heels of a growing list of restrictions on Chinese-manufactured drones that began with the Army in 2017, moved to the entire Defense Department in 2018 and is now being considered for governmentwide implementation under pending federal legislation titled the American Security Drone Act.
Those restrictions have led to opportunities for U.S.-based and other manufacturers, including Teal Drones, a Murray-based company founded by George Matus when he was still a teenager.
And the selection could help Teal Drones secure new contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.
Teal’s Golden Eagle is a rugged, fast and portable advanced drone that was developed over the course of an 18-month innovation and testing contract with the Defense Department. Matus said six companies, including Teal, were awarded some $11 million collectively to design and complete a prototype that meets specifications as outlined by the Army in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit.
Matus said Thursday he is thrilled with the news and hopes the announcement will also mark a turning point for domestic drone innovators that have been dominated by a single Chinese drone maker since the vehicles began to surge in popularity a decade ago.
“We all know that 2020 is going to be remembered for a lot of things, but I’m hoping one of them will be the resurgence of the American drone industry,” Matus said. “The industry has just been getting ... pummeled with DJI taking over the market ... and almost reducing the U.S. drone industrial base to zero.”
DJI, a Chinese company, has built up overwhelming control of domestic drone sales since launching in 2006, with recent data from trade group Drone Industry Insights indicating the company holds almost 80% of the U.S. market.
Matus noted concerns about secured data flow, and data privacy, have swirled around Chinese drone makers for years. Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an alert that highlighted concerns about Chinese-made drones, but did not specify any manufacturers.
“The United States government has strong concerns about any technology product that takes American data into the territory of an authoritarian state that permits its intelligence services to have unfettered access to that data or otherwise abuses that access,” the notice read.
“Those concerns apply with equal force to certain Chinese-made (unmanned aircraft systems)-connected devices capable of collecting and transferring potentially revealing data about their operations and the individuals and entities operating them, as China imposes unusually stringent obligations on its citizens to support national intelligence activities.”
The Defense Department said in its Thursday announcement that while small drones have been widely available in consumer markets since the early 2010s and have notably been adopted by foreign military forces and nonstate actors alike as inexpensive tools to gain a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield, until now, the “DOD has not had the opportunity to adopt these systems safely.”
Michael Kratsios, acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the new program that led to the new drone provider list, called Blue Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, “represents a tremendous first step toward building a robust and trusted (unmanned aerial system) domestic industrial base that ensures sustained delivery of highly-capable, secure, unmanned aerial systems to the warfighters that depend on it.”
In a statement, Kratsios also noted the program showcases how the Defense Department “can both work with small, nontraditional companies and our allies and partners to quickly pilot cutting-edge technologies that support our mutual defense.”
According to a Wall Street Journal report, U.S. government spending on small drones has skyrocketed in the past few years, with almost $280 million earmarked for the tiny fliers by the Defense Department in 2019.
Matus founded Teal Drones in 2014 when he was 16 years old but his company has since developed and launched multiple, high-performance drone models while attracting over $20 million in venture backing.
But even that chronology is a little deceiving.
In a 2019 Deseret News profile, Matus explained that he had been on the path to Teal since he became enamored of radio controlled planes and helicopters as a boy and developed a skill set that would lead to his first job in the drone industry, as a wizened 12-year-old.
“I got that first radio-controlled plane and really fell in love with it,” Matus said. “I started learning as much as I could about hardware and software and flying,” Matus said. “I was running lemonade stands and doing magic shows and babysitting to save up to buy my next $200 plane.
“And when I was 12 became a test pilot for a drone company. I just applied for fun, because I saw an application.”
The other drone makers approved for inclusion on the federal procurement list include three U.S. based companies, Skydio, Altavian and Vantage Robotics, as well as French company Parrot.