Replicator initiative drones investment

Pentagon unveils ambitious $1 billion investment in “Replicator” drone initiative

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks this month announced a planned investment of $1 billion over the next two years in the Pentagon’s “Replicator” program, which puts drones front and center. Announced last year, the “Replicator” program is a government effort to quickly round up relatively low-cost drones cheap drones that could be used for military purposes.

The idea? The flying robots that have historically been used as “military” drones have also historically been expensive. It’s more than just cost, though. Traditional defense acquisition programs have often been criticized for lengthy timelines.

But as recent examples — most notably the war in Ukraine — have evidenced, even consumer drones can function as military drones. Ukrainians have used drones for a myriad of use cases, including:

  • performing tactical intelligence.
  • conducting surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) on the battlefield to help identify enemy formations.
  • using aerial visuals to understand their enemy’s scheme of maneuver and improve targeting accuracy.
  • conducting post-strike analysis.
  • documenting war crimes.

Yet even Ukraine doesn’t have enough drones. According to W. Mark Valentine, President of Global Government at Skydio, Ukrainian forces are losing up to ten-thousand drones per month to Russian counter drone operations.

“By contrast, based on open-source information, it appears the U.S. Military has fielded enough drones to last less than two-months at a similar rate of attrition,” he said in a September 2023 blog post on the Replicator initiative.

Thus, the U.S. is looking to beef up its own arsenal of military drones using small, low-cost drone systems. Still, even the U.S. is spending a hefty sum of money. The Replicator Initiative’s core objective is largely to counter China’s growing military strength by overwhelming adversaries with what might be considered more expendable drones.

The planned $1 billion investment translates to about $500 annually dedicated to rapidly producing and deploying large fleets of autonomous drones. In March 2024, we learned that the Department of Defense had requested $500 million to support its Replicator initiative in fiscal year 2025. It’s expected to submit an additional $500 million reprogramming request for Replicator for fiscal year 2024 if Congress does not appropriate those funds in the FY2024 budget. Reprogramming refers to the method of shifting funds around within Pentagon accounts to meet what the department considers urgent needs.

What is the Replicator Initiative?

Adam Bry, Skydio CEO and Co-Founder, Deputy Secretary of Defense Katheen Hicks, and Doug Beck, Director of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense, view an autonomous drone demonstration. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza)

Announced in August 2023, the Replicator initiative is an effort to equip the U.S. military with affordable, autonomous systems.

“It’s clear that the character of warfare is changing,” Hicks said in a prepared statement from December 2023. “Replicator is part of how — at the Department of Defense — 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 focuses on using cost-effective drones to overwhelm adversaries with their sheer numbers. The program’s key focus lies in accelerating the fielding of operational drone swarms within an 18-24 month timeframe. This aggressive timeline represents a marked departure from traditional defense acquisition timelines. That suggests a prioritization of streamlined processes and potential integration of commercially available technologies.

Replicator Initiative: a project shrouded in secrecy

Still, much of the project has been under wraps. Though, the Pentagon has said it would offer up more details once it has money and lawmakers’ approval.

“We’re developing classification guidelines, that’ll help us walk that line of sharing information that really shows industry what we’re doing, and at the same protects the things that we think are important,” Hicks said.

In addition, specific details regarding the Replicator drones and the companies involved remain classified. The Pentagon has also not yet publicly disclosed the initial capabilities targeted by the initiative, nor the physical characteristics of the drones themselves. While this secrecy may expedite internal processes, it has also raised concerns about transparency. With public trust in drone programs hinging on open communication, some experts have cautioned that the shroud of secrecy surrounding Replicator could hinder public support.

What companies are involved in the Replicator initiative?

What companies are involved in the Replicator initiative? That’s also part of the secret.

Back in November 2023, Hicks said the Pentagon would select the candidates within the next few weeks.

“I would not necessarily say the candidates will be announced,” she said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, DC in November 2023. “We’re being very careful. I’ve talked to Congress in classified sessions on this, but how we choose to speak about it, in terms of the particular programs or projects that will be accelerating through Replicator is to be determined.”

While the Pentagon has not announced the list of companies officially involved with Replicator, there are some signs. (Note this is neither an official nor definitive list of involved companies or drone types, and should be considered speculative):

Skydio

The Skydio X10 drone flying at night.
Skydio X10 drone. Photo courtesy of Skydio

In particular, American drone companies like Skydio have garnered attention in connection with Replicator. While specific details remain under wraps, Skydio’s experience in mass-producing small, autonomous drones aligns with potential needs of the initiative. Skydio also claims to be the largest drone manufacturer in the U.S. The company has publicly announced its support for the Replicator program.

Skydio in late 2023 launched the Skydio X10 drone, an enterprise-range quadcopter that stands out for its high-resolution cameras. That makes it particularly powerful at night or in other low-light situations, which is critical for military applications. The lightweight, portable drone is also standout in military use given its weather resistance and capability to fight against jammers.

Skydio already has strong military ties. For example, last August Skydio announced a massive U.S. Army contract worth up to $99.8 million. Additionally, Skydio is one of just about a dozen companies participating in the U.S. Department of Defense’s pilot program called Blue sUAS 2.0. With Blue sUAS 2.0, private companies work with the government to prototype a new process of approving U.S. military-compliant drones.

Maritime drones

And not all drones might necessarily be the flying ones. Some experts point to ocean drones as critical.

Just look to China’s Haidou-1 AUV as one example. According to state media, the Haidou-1 AUV conducted a mission in May 2020 in the Mariana Trench. There, it reached depths as much as 35,784 feet. According to state media, that was a record for Chinese underwater vehicles.

“With all this ocean drone activity, it is no surprise China has rapidly developed and deployed capabilities comparable to or exceeding those of the United States,” wrote Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, U.S. Navy (Retired) in a post for the U.S. Naval Institute. “This in part is the reason for the Defense Department’s new Replicator initiative, which intends to deliver thousands of attritable, all-domain, autonomous systems to counter the rapid growth of China’s armed forces. Kinetic interceptors will be included through the production-ready, inexpensive, maritime expeditionary small USV solicitation by the Defense Innovation University.”

What about Blue sUAS?

The Replicator initiative is not the only Department of Defense initiative to bring more private drone makers into the fold of producing drones for military or government use.

The DoD in August 2020 established the Blue sUAS program. Blue sUAS’s intent is to provide secure, trusted, drone capabilities to the U.S. government. As a Blue sUAS program participant, the DoD has verified that they meet standards for U.S. government procurement.

Blue sUAS program participants are not necessarily involved in the Replicator program. But, it wouldn’t be unlikely that Replicator participants are already Blue sUAS participants. As of December 2023, drone companies (followed by the specific drone models) on the Blue UAS Cleared List are:

  • AgEagle (formerly SenseFly): eBee TAC
  • Ascent Aerosystems: Spirit
  • Blue Halo, IE-V2 Jeti
  • Easy Aerial: Osprey
  • Flightwave: Edge 130
  • Freefly Systems: Alta X
  • Harris Aerial: H6 Electric, H6 Hydrone, H6 EFI
  • Inspired Flight: IF 1200A, IF 800, IF 750
  • Parrot: Parrot ANAFI USA GOV, Parrot ANAFI USA MIL
  • PDW: C100
  • Skydio: X2D Color 1.8 GHz, X2D Color 5 GHz, Thermal 1.8 GHz, Thermal 5 GHz, X2D Multiband
  • Teal: Teal 2, Golden Eagle
  • Vantage: Vesper
  • Wingtra: Wingtra One Gen II

Is the U.S. behind?

Some experts worry that — even with the Replicator initiative — the U.S. is behind in terms of its approach to small drones.

“The U.S. military is woefully unprepared for warfare in this newly contested subdomain of the air littoral,” David Barno and Nora Bensahel wrote in a piece for War on the Rocks, which is a platform for analysis and debate on strategy, defense, and foreign affairs. “Needless to say, the U.S. drone inventory looks nothing at all like Ukraine’s. It is a fraction of its size and scale, focusing on small numbers of highly advanced systems.”

And even the Replicator initiative might not be enough, some experts say.

“Even the Pentagon’s highly touted Replicator initiative aims to develop only “thousands” of attritable autonomous systems in the next two years —  and right now, it is far from clear that the initiative will ultimately succeed,” Barno and Bensahel wrote.

But many drone industry experts are optimistic too. That’s largely because the Replicator project could infuse American drone companies with much-needed capital.

“The potential for DoD investment into these systems, many of which are dual purpose commercial and defense technologies, benefits the warfighting capabilities of the United States,” according to a white paper from AUVSI, which is a drone lobbyist group. “It also boosts U.S. industry, spurring job creation, investment, and advanced R&D.”

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