Why Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks paid an important drone company a visit

Here’s a compelling tidbit from the drone world that happened in December. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks paid a visit to California-based drone maker Skydio as part of a broader tour of Silicon Valley tech companies. The key topic at hand? To discuss the Department of Defense’s goals for how tech companies can innovate to outpace Chinese technology, with a focus on how U.S. tech companies can deliver the most cutting-edge technologies to warfighters.

Especially in the drone industry, the current dominant players are made in China, namely DJI. So dominant is DJI’s position as a potential provide of war fighting technologies, in fact, that Chinese leader Xi Jinping imposed an export ban on certain DJI drones in an effort to prevent either side from using its drones in the Russia-Ukraine war.

But drone companies like Skydio are proving to be viable contenders to building technology that offers an alternative to DJI. In fact, Skydio has been providing autonomous, AI-powered drones to the U.S. and allied defense enterprises for years now largely through its Skydio X2D drone.

And Skydio’s military production will likely only increase, given news earlier this year that Skydio would shut down its consumer drone arm. The reasoning wasn’t because Skydio was struggling. Instead, the move was to capitalize on the need for building drones and related products for enterprise and defense industries. Shortly after that announcement, Skydio went on to host a mega press event where it launched its Skydio X10 drone, an enterprise-range drone that stands out for its high-resolution cameras.

Adam Bry, Skydio CEO and Co-Founder, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks tour Skydio’s drone manufacturing facility in Hayward, California.
Adam Bry, Skydio CEO and Co-Founder, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks tour Skydio’s drone manufacturing facility in Hayward, California. (Photo: Sierra Sarino, Skydio)

And all that effort is catching the government’s attention. Hicks and her team visited Skydio’s offices on Dec. 12 where she met with Skydio execs and received a demonstration of Skydio platforms in action including the X10D and Dock. She also received a tour of Skydio’s manufacturing facility which is located in Hayward, California, and is considered a suburb of Silicon Valley. In fact, that facility is so powerful that Skydio claims it has recently expanded its manufacturing capacity by a factor of 10.

Of course, Skydio isn’t the only company Hicks visited during her trip. She met with nine companies spanning areas including air defense, virtual training for pilots and augmented reality for warfighters. Another standout visit was with Kodiak Robotics, which is primarily known as a builder of autonomous trucks, but that stands out to defense leaders as a potential mover in the world of AI and advanced manufacturing processes.

Other ways Skydio is working with the U.S. government

The visit by Kathleen Hicks was a huge milestone, but Skydio has had other wins (especially in the month of December) in making headwinds with the U.S. government. On Dec. 1, 2023, Skydio leaders met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, where they demonstrated Skydio’s advanced autonomous sUAS systems to show how multiple Skydio drones can operate under the oversight of a single person. His visit, which also encompassed a handful of Silicon Valley tech companies, was focused on how the military can accelerate the adoption of leading commercial technology.

Skydio CEO and Co-founder, Adam Bry, demonstrates an X2D drone for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III. Photo courtesy of Skydio.

Both that visit and the more recent one by Hicks were part of what’s called the DoD’s Replicator initiative. That initiative, which she announced in August 2023, is an effort to equip the U.S. military with affordable, autonomous systems.

“It’s clear that the character of warfare is changing,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks in a prepared statement. “Replicator is part of how at DoD we’re putting our thumb on the scale to make sure America, not our strategic competitors and adversaries, are the ones who see, drive, and master the future character of warfare.”

The Replicator initiative could provide enormous benefit to not just Skydio, but also other U.S. drone companies building drones for the military such as Utah-based Teal, which builds the Teal 2 drone that’s designed for nighttime flight thanks to its FLIR Hadron 640R sensor

Other wins for Skydio include being selected in February 2022 as the Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) program of record for the U.S, Army, allowing it to work closely with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to make the acquisition of autonomous drones as simple as possible for the DoD. It also runs a National Defense Authorization Act-compliant supply chain. Skydio claims that, to-date, it has delivered thousands of drones to the U.S. military.

Mitt Romney Teal drone
Senator Mitt Romney visits Teal’s factory in Utah. Photo courtesy of Red Cat.

The idea of prominent government leaders visiting American drone companies is not new. In fact, this past summer Utah Sen. Mitt Romney visited Teal’s Utah factory. Republican Senator Romney is co-sponsoring the American Security Drone Act of 2023, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit federal agencies from purchasing drones made by Chinese government-linked countries. The bill has backing from other prominent politicians including Sen. Marco Rubio [R-FL] and and Sen. Josh Hawley [R-MO].

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