Blue UAS framework sparks collaboration & innovation for dual-use drone techStory
June 08, 2023
The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Blue UAS Program is intended to enable a holistic and continuous approach to rapidly prototyping and scaling capable and secure commercial uncrewed aircraft systems (UASs) and related technology for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). It sponsors the development of innovative new drone technology and makes it easier for government agencies to procure “DoD-cleared” commercial drone tech.
The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) interoperability requirement for its Blue UAS program presents a unique opportunity for commercial drone platform manufacturers, component providers, and software companies to collaborate with each other in novel ways. As a second-order impact, companies like Doodle Labs, UXV and Auterion have individually – and together – developed innovative ground-breaking technologies for both the warfighter and commercial user.
Blue UAS Framework 101
The DIU’S Blue UAS Framework focuses on adapting and fielding commercially derived best-in-class robotics technologies, with an emphasis on secure supply chains, interoperable components, and software to address critical warfighter needs.
Blue’s origins lie in the “Group One UAV Architecture.” This legacy program, created to test components from industry for modular, interoperable and cyber secure equipment and architectures aimed to promote and develop the DoD’s small UAS (sUAS).
In the midst of the Group One project, Congress passed Section 848 of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It precluded the DoD from operating or procuring Chinese UAS or related components. In response, that same year, DIU launched the Blue UAS Framework 1.0.
As part of this initial Blue Framework, DIU put out a Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) “Area of Interest'' (AOI) to solicit industry for relevant sUAS components. Those components included software protocols, cameras and gimbals, flight controllers, data links and radios. Out of the 80 submissions DIU received, it chose five companies to develop those components for the DoD.
In short order, several other federal agencies jumped on board Blue for DIU assistance in obtaining NDAA-complaint drones and components. “Blue UAS grew up to be a whole-of-government solution,” notes Matthew Borowski, technical program manager at the DIU who leads the Blue UAS program. “It evolved from simply getting and using sUAS within the confines of the DoD to gain greater efficiencies across the federal government, the domestic industrial base and our allied partners through a centralized program.”
Based upon these needs, in 2020 the DIU put out a second call for the Blue UAS Framework 2.0. By July of that year, DIU had awarded multiple contracts for this second iteration of the program.
DIU has since refined its overarching Blue UAS program into three lines of effort: the Blue UAS Cleared List, the Foundry and the Hub.
- Cleared List: This on-ramp process provides a path to bring commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems from the commercial market directly into the DoD and federal government. Companies brought in through this process become listed on DIU’s Cleared Lists, which the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) manages.
- Foundry: DIU uses its foundry for commercial tech that needs to be modified to meet DoD standards and mission performance needs. The Foundry uses the CSO process to encourage companies to further develop their commercially viable components to become DoD-compliant.
- Hub: The Hub provides a secure place for DIU Blue ecosystem-selected companies to access their paperwork. With the required authentication, companies can access their documents, certifications, and other DoD-specific paperwork such as authority to operate, interim flight clearances and interim certificates.
DIU has also migrated into OSD’s Research and Engineering Office, directly under the Secretary of Defense. This move stemmed from the need for a more formal joint coordination effort between DoD and its various interagency and international partners.
“We are not meant to be gatekeepers,” Borowski explains. “We just provide a means for systems that don't have another federal partner or process to become part of the DoD. Before Blue UAS, people had to figure this out on their own. We help align interests. It's been quite successful.”
Through Blue, DIU ultimately aims to match plug and play sUAS components with systems on its cleared list. As compatibility and interoperability remain integral to this effort, DIU’s partnerships have inspired world-class dual use technologies.
Innovation on order
DIU’s interoperability requirement for commercial components and software has spurred the creation of new capabilities and advancements that, until recently, many had not believed possible. For example, Doodle Labs, part of the Blue UAS ecosystem of drone component manufacturers since the Framework’s inception, has continued pushing the envelope to develop new technologies. Ashish Parikh, VP business development, Doodle Labs, credits DIU ecosystem for spurring the company to create its dual-use six-band Helix Smart Radio. “The technology itself might not have existed without this program,” Parikh says.
Parikh continues: “To be honest, I'm not sure if we would have developed a drone-specific radio, if not for the draw of this ecosystem that DIU was putting together a couple of years ago, when the Army distilled requirements down to a single set. DIU helped us not only to gain clarity on what we should develop for the military, it also gave us an indication that there's probably going to be multiple other users of this tech. This was very valuable for us.”
Before the company’s entry into the Blue Framework, Doodle Labs focused on designing wireless networking products for autonomous vehicles, robots, and connected teams. Its team of hardware and networking software engineers with more than 20 years of RF experience provided reliable high bandwidth links for long range, moving and dynamic situations across a variety of use-case optimized form factors for almost every kind of commercial UAS application. Its edge connectivity, long range links (up to 100 kilometers on the high end) and mesh network expertise made it a perfect fit when DIU put out the call for a future-proofed radio for the Army’s drones.
Parikh recalls, “There was a very collaborative dialogue once DIU brought us on board and to the table. The discussion focused on how we could all leverage what Doodle Labs had to offer so it could be brought to the Blue ecosystem and to the broader industry.”
As a result of these informative talks, the company focused on six areas to build out its Helix Smart Radio:
- SWaP: DIU charged Doodle Labs with reducing the size and weight of its radios. Its initial Embedded module weighed around 60 grams. The company initially shrunk that down to a 30 gram mini-OEM model. A follow-on request for an even smaller platform resulted in the creation of Doodle’s nano-OEM, which weighs only 12 grams.
- Multiple bands: Before becoming Blue, Doodle produced radios with embedded single band versions in government and commercial bands. Because the Army deploys its vehicles into different parts of the world with different aligned spectrums, it needed a radio that could operate in multiple bands. So, Doodle developed a multiband technology in the Helix. Now, on the same radio, the company has six bands that cover from 1.6 to 2.5 gigahertz. The Helix uses a robust spectrum manager that scans spectrum and, with user input, can change channels between bands in just a few milliseconds. Automatic channel selection is being released in Doodle Labs’ next firmware release.
- Interoperability: DIU and the Army both desired non-proprietary standard interfaces. Doodle Labs is a Qualcomm development partner and runs open source Linux on its system. Both Qualcomm products and Linux make its products easy for system engineers who must perform integrations.
- Security: Doodle incorporated the new NIST FIPS 140-3 cryptography module standards to give the end user a high comfort level with the security of the radio and of the system. This is ahead of its time, as FIPS 140-2 does not officially sunset until 2026.
- Future-proofing: The FIPS standard is one example of Doodle’s future-proofing in its design. While future-proofing was not a requirement, the company decided to expand its radio design beyond the requested point-to-point link. Using its mesh network expertise, and other partner collaborations, Doodle built its Helix Mesh Rider Radio for the more advanced use cases of the future. At the basic level, the Helix enables relays to extend range even further. For online situations, it incorporated broadcast modes where a single drone can transmit video to a number of different ground users. It also leverages multiple mesh modes, including its Fast Roaming Mesh, which can connect 20 or fewer users and its Dynamic Mesh, an advanced, fully ad-hoc mobile network that can relay to as many as 200 nodes with zero downtime between nodes, when either entering or leaving the network.
- Partner Integrations: Doodle Labs also forged new partnerships and integrations with other Blue UAS ecosystem components.
Today, not only does the Army use the Helix Mesh Rider radio, but Doodle Labs also ships its Helix in high volumes to the front lines in Ukraine. “These things are being used to fly 40 kilometers into enemy territory with a very congested spectrum,” Parikh notes. “On top of that, we've taken this warfighter-focused product and recently released commercial variants of it for the commercial drone ecosystem. It seems to be filling a gap for-high performance links at commercial price points and requirements.” (Figure 1.)
[Figure 1 ǀ Development of Doodle Labs' Helix Mesh Rider Radio, pictured here in the mini-OEM form factor, was sponsored by DIU and is fully Blue UAS-compliant.]
Doodle Labs’ Blue success story in the defense-related drone space and beyond can be attributed not only to the company’s internal expertise, but also because it became better as it worked with other Blue companies.
Interoperability is key
The DoD has an interest in interconnectability with other systems which may or may not have been designed by the same company. This aspect is also key for the military, which has existing and legacy command-and-control (C2) networks. Any new nodes have to connect into those systems. The ability to swap components, to build off a common baseline and to prevent reinventing the same technologies over and over again, is key to the DIU interoperability requirement. It has also sparked collaborations between Blue Framework vendors with seemingly disparate commercial interests, teamings that remain key to the program’s viability.
“We try to serve as a liaison between the commercial industry and the DoD,” Borowski says. “While we're doing this, we also have a really unique opportunity to begin to align our Blue UAS vendors to work together to innovate, as well as to drive commercial standards and protocols. This increases our ability to use the tech and also improves the capabilities that we onboard.”
One major example: DIU’s partnership enabled a deep connection between Doodle Labs, Auterion, and UXV to continue innovating together. Doodle Labs’ Parikh points to the Helix Mesh Rider radio integration with Auterion’s Q Ground Control, a widely used military C2 application, as a key example of this interoperability. “Our radio has a whole lot of data that the user can utilize on the back end, such as the strength of the signal, the location of the radios, the topology and strength of the mesh network,” he says. “Now, end users can see all of this in Q Ground Control, which they were not able to see before.”
This interface between Doodle Labs and Auterion, developed as part of the Blue UAS program, is part of the latter’s deliberate design process, according to Nuno Marques, government engineering manager at Auterion. Marques, who on behalf of Auterion leads the Robotics and Autonomous Systems – Air Interoperability Profile (RAS-A IOP) development with the DoD and industry organizations, says that his company approaches the development of technology for government and defense UAS cases as close as possible to how it approaches commercial and industrial customers. “As a software platform, we try to make the differences as minimal as possible,” he explains. “Of course, sometimes that's not possible, because of certain requirements imposed by the government, such as export control requirements. Generally, though, we try to harmonize what we develop from both the government side and the enterprise side in a manner so that both sets of customers can enjoy the same capabilities without much burden.” (Figure 2.)
[Figure 2 ǀ Auterion's Skynode is a hardware-agnostic flight controller and mission computer built for integration, which the company says is a fast way to power any robotics hardware with the Auterion software platform and turn it into an autonomous system.]
Marques is a proponent of the modular open systems approach (MOSA) that DIU embraces, especially with regards to software, as it is intended to prevent technical and programmatic vendor lock. “When closed systems are used at scale for operational use, it is rather difficult, perhaps even impossible, to update them with new software capabilities provided by third parties,” he notes.
Auterion, Marques says, views robotics and autonomous systems as computers which will increasingly need to easily integrate third-party applications for autonomy, navigation, object detection and classification, and other applications, as well as integrate new payloads and sensors in a modular way. He believes in the need for a common robotics operating system, infrastructure, and development environment. For decades, robotics and the UAS industry were rarely set up on common operating systems or communication protocols.
“What we have done to support DIU and these partners helps to solve the vendor lock problem for robotics and autonomous systems in both the commercial market and for governments. Auterion offers a common operating system and a development infrastructure based on open standards in an architecture that potentiates modular systems,” Marques explains.
What this means is that now robotics, manufacturers, and governments are able to get interoperable products in the field faster and with better capabilities that scale. This ability includes many different drones and use cases that now allow real time to flow from the sensor pipelines to the operators and decision-makers.
For the DUI Blue UAS program, Auterion acts as an architect, a neutral party where its operating system powers robots and drones across a diverse fleet made by different manufacturers. The company adds other capabilities on top of the operating system and differentiates these, in terms of the hardware. Some of that hardware includes UXV Technologies controllers.
UXV, an OEM provider of different technologies within robotics, offers a wide range of different ground-control stations (GCS). UXV worked with both Doodle Labs and Auterion to help harmonize standards in terms of how GCS’s parts can be used together with radios, specifically with regard to the software, electrical, mechanical, and other interfaces.
Prior to the DIU program, a normal GCS configuration would involve a direct integration of the radio into the controller, says Steven Friberg, UXV’s CEO. “It was locked together because it was built like that. Contrast this with our DIU-inspired radio-interoperable module. It fits a lot of the small drones and small robots, directly on the controller and also on the vehicle. It is completely field-adaptable to whatever radio that you would like to use, including with the Doodle Labs Helix radio.” (Figure 3.)
[Figure 3 ǀ UXV's SRoC is a unified controller platform that includes a swappable radio module, allowing for interoperability with the radio of the end-users' choice. It was developed in coordination with DIU and the Blue UAS program.]
UXV started formalizing and doing a first integration of its controllers with Doodle Labs and Auterion more than four years ago, as well as working on the standards to do so. These partnerships changed the game, according to Frieberg.
“There were a lot of different radios, but also different teams that needed to be able to work together and with each controller,” Friberg notes. “The standards we helped to forge makes the ecosystem’s tech interoperable. This means a lower investment to the integrator over time. They won’t only need to have to buy the exact controllers or radio with the exact radius for a specific operation. This modularity will enable more integrated systems.”
For all three companies, being a part of the Blue UAS ecosystem has enabled their products to have greater market outreach in DoD and commercial sectors. This market presence, in turn, has fostered a wider outreach of adaptation and increased standardization across the drone ecosystem.
“It’s been an honor collaborating to build powerful new integrations and capabilities – and sometimes entirely new in use cases – that benefit not only defense agencies, but other governmental commercial and industrial companies and the entire UAS industry,” Parikh says. “We see our extensive experience and working together with the other DIU partners to make quick integrations as an important value add for the market.”
As for what’s next, stay tuned for more Blue innovations and collaborations. Doodle Labs, for example, says that it plans to have a version of its channel-switching mechanism, where the radio itself can hop channels automatically, a capability that will help ensure reliable connectivity in the face of interference, such as jamming.
“We're just getting started,” DIU’s Borowski says. “And we couldn't do it without the help and support from innovative vendors like Doodle Labs, Auterion, and UXV. Keep an eye open for what we have to share about the technology we are working on to set the path to a really great future for autonomous systems.”