DJI drones cleared for government use, plus more UAV news

June 16, 2021  - By

There is a lot of UAV action taking place this month. An anti-drone defensive system is being trialed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DJI drones get the green light again for use by government agencies. The U.S. Navy/Boeing refuel an F/A-18 aircraft using a drone, and the Mars helicopter drone has a non-fatal in-flight problem.

DJI drones cleared for government use

There’s good news for operators who might have been scared away from using drones manufactured by Chinese company DJI. Two “government” models have now been cleared by the Pentagon for use by agencies who had previously been instructed to cease and desist operating them. The Matrice 600 Pro and the Mavic Pro government models were cleared, because “no malicious code or intent” was found. These types of drone are now “recommended for use by government entities and forces working with U.S. services.”

DJI Matrice 600 Pro (Photo: DJI)

DJI Matrice 600 Pro (Photo: DJI)

The drones have been modified from standard models to provide a customized control application, prevent automatic software updates being applied without user approval, and implement an operational control-zone capability.

The U.S. Interior Department was behind the modifications, with the objective of resuming use of its grounded fleet of more than 500 DJI drones. They may need them again soon for forest-fire monitoring — it’s the season again. Allegations of potential “sharing of data” with the Chinese government were previously investigated and apparently debunked by Booz Allen Hamilton, in a report released in June 2020. Now the Pentagon seems to affirm these earlier findings.

Nevertheless, DJI remains on the Commerce Department’s don’t-buy list, and the Justice Department has banned agencies from buying foreign drones that could be vulnerable to tampering with data, or otherwise might be a threat to the U.S.

DHS trials anti-drone system

In recent “bad-drone” incidents, people have tried to smuggle contraband into prisons, flown into landing flight paths at airports, and even successfully inflicted significant damage on oil storage facilities in Saudi Arabia — never mind a failed assassination attempt in Venezuela. And with illegal immigration and drug smuggling becoming crisis issues, DHS has decided that its probably time to build a level of protection at U.S. borders. A trial is now scheduled at the quieter and more orderly Canadian border so that DHS can fully focus on evaluating the Fortem SkyDome system.

TrueView Radar (Photo: Fortem Technologies)

TrueView radar detects and calculates the location and trajectory of hundreds of airborne objects quickly and accurately. (Photo: Fortem Technologies)

Bad actors attacking a facility using a drone, sometimes with explosives strapped to it, have set their target as a waypoint and switched off the radio control link. The drone then carries on to its target, without fear of radio “sniffer” detection systems picking it up and jamming the control link.

Fortem built a drone defense system that uses radar for “RF silent drone” detection. Not only does the Fortem SkyDome system detect unwanted intruder drones, but it also can send out a DroneHunter UAV which hones in on and fires a net to capture, immobilize and bring back the offending drone so the defenders can investigate the attack.

Boeing UAV refuels F-18 fighter aircraft

Boeing is engaged in development of an unmanned tanker vehicle for the U.S. Navy. The company has built and flown the first test drone, known as Stingray MQ-25 T1. Boeing has another seven unmanned refueling tankers on order. T1 is the first test article for the program. Following a number of successful initial handling, control and envelope extension test flights — including several with the Navy refueling pod installed under the T1 left wing — fuel was loaded, and on June 4, a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft accompanied the T1 into the air on another test flight.

T1 Stingray refuels a Navy F/A-18. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Boeing)

T1 Stingray refuels a Navy F/A-18. (Photo:
U.S. Navy/Boeing)

The F/A-18 flew close to and maneuvered around the drone for some time, and when the pilot and test managers concluded that both were in joint, controlled, stable flight, the MQ-25 was commanded to extend the refueling pod hose and drogue. The F/A-18 normally refuels in the air from another F/A-18 configured with the same refueling pod and refueling boom, so the actual transfer of fuel which then took place was somewhat commonplace for the F-18 pilot, save that the slipstream buffet was probably less significant. Nevertheless, this was the very first time that a Navy aircraft has been refueled by an unmanned aircraft.

After further MQ-25 T1 test flights, the tanker-drone will be transported to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials aboard a U.S. Navy carrier later in the year. The MQ-25 Stingray is planned to take over this airborne refueling work which is currently handled by other F/A-18s, freeing up the fighter aircraft for operational fighter missions.

Mars drone flight experiences navigation anomaly

On May 25, the Mars drone Integrity had been commanded to take its sixth longer, higher flight. Like a good little tech package on the end of a 220-million-mile distant signal, Integrity did as it was told. However, after around 490 feet in the Mars atmosphere, Integrity started to change speed and dramatically oscillate back and forth. Even so, the UAV managed to complete the transit to within about 16 feet of the new intended parking spot.

NASA analyzed the data sent back from the drone through the Perseverance rover. NASA discovered that the flow of images from the navigation camera had been disrupted by a missing image, and the time-stamps for the images had become incorrect.

Integrity sits safely on Mars following an in-flight anomaly. (Photo: NASA)

Integrity sits safely on Mars following an in-flight anomaly. (Photo: NASA)

Integrity’s navigation system is fed by an inertial measurement unit with images from the nav camera, so the time-stamp discrepancies between what the camera was saying and what the IMU was saying gave it an unforeseen issue to resolve. The resultant bucking in flight was an effort to resolve the data time differences. Images are not used in the landing phase, so the oscillations ceased as the rover descended, and the landing was as graceful as usual.

Fortunately, it appears that Integrity has not been damaged, and NASA is working to send the little drone on further scouting missions for its companion rover. NASA’s website indicates that the drone should have flown again on June 6, but right now there doesn’t seem to be any further evidence that a flight did or did not take place.


The testing that the Pentagon has done on a couple of models of DJI drones appears to have cleared them of possible malfeasance, but otherwise the report is classified. I wonder what secret science DOD used to detect/eliminate possible illicit communications with China by the drones? And it’s high time everyone realized that these “drone -thingies” can also be used to hurt us — as new technology in the hands of people who do not wish us well almost always can.

This month I discovered that Navy F/A-18s could fly further by hanging refueling pods on other F/A-18s, thereby taking the tanking aircraft out of the regular training and combat rotation. I’m glad we’ve got a drone alternative coming that must cost a lot less and also will free up fighting assets.

Finally, it doesn’t seem that we have to worry the Mars helicopter is too broken to keep seeking the best route for the rover. There were enough margins in the navigation algorithms that the little guy didn’t wreck when the image processing hiccupped. Let’s get flying again, NASA!

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace