Teal Drones Secures $90 Million Border Patrol Contract and Explores Future Defense Opportunities: DRONELIFE Exclusive Interview
Teal Drones wins new contract to supply aerial systems to patrol U.S. borders
By DRONELIFE Features Editor Jim Magill
Federal agencies tasked with maintaining control of U.S. borders are increasingly turning to the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to provide “eyes in the sky,” to spot the movements of drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants.
As part of this effort, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently awarded a firm-fixed-price contract to Teal Drones, a subsidiary of software and drone manufacturer Red Cat Holdings, to supply aerial systems to be used in both daylight and nighttime surveillance operations in border areas. Under a blanket purchase agreement (BPA) with an estimated value of $90 million, Teal will be one of several federal contractors selected to provide drones to CBP over a 5-year ordering period.
Teal’s drones “will provide supplemental airborne reconnaissance, surveillance, and tracking capability to enhance situational awareness for field commanders and agents in areas that lack nearby traditional surveillance systems or available manned air support,” according to a company statement.
The BPA allows any federal agency within the Department of Homeland Security to purchase drones from Teal, Geoffrey Hitchcock, Red Cat’s senior vice president of Global Defense Solutions, said in an interview.
Plans call for the drones to be built in the company’s 25,000-square-foot manufacturing and engineering facility in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Under an earlier contract award, Teal had delivered 54 Teal 2 drone systems to CBP last January. Under the current contract, the company plans to deliver another 101 systems to the border agency this month, Hitchcock said. The CBP informed Teal that the initial batch of 54 drones would be deployed at more than a dozen different locations along both the southern and northern U.S. borders. Hitchcock said he is not sure where along the borders the latest batch of 101 UAVs would be deployed.
He said that while CBP does not disclose exactly how it plans to use the drones, “the Teal 2 is an intelligence reconnaissance surveillance drone, so they’re using it both in the northern and the southern border, in areas to put eyes on areas of interest, high-traffic areas. Basically, it gives them an airborne set of eyes, at very remote locations.”
Hitchcock said the agreement with CBP has led to Teal being awarded with additional, even larger contracts with defense customers, both domestic and foreign. “We’ve received two separate contracts for 342 systems for the Air Force. It’s also opened up some international opportunities for us. We’re delivering systems to the Dutch Ministry of Defense,” he said.
“We’re in a position now where we’re competing for the Army’s short-range reconnaissance program,” he said. Initially 38 defense contractors had competed for the contract, “and now it’s down between us and another company, and that program of record should be announced in September,” Hitchcock said.
The seven-year program calls for the development of the next generation of small quadcopters for military use.
“We’re in the process of working on that offering, which will be a different platform, kind of the latest and greatest. We’re not sure what the name’s going to be right now. We’re calling it Teal 3,” he said.
The company is also in the running to be one of the defense contractors to be selected to be part of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) recently announced Replicator initiative, in which the Pentagon plans to acquire multiple thousands of “attritable autonomous systems,” such as small portable drones, over the next two years.
Adapted for surveillance
The specification of the company’s Teal 2 drones makes them uniquely qualified to perform the type of surveillance work required by the CBP and other defense and law enforcement customers, Hitchcock said. With a battery life allowing flights of up to 30 minutes – 35 minutes with the addition of a special endurance package – the vehicle has a 5-kilometer range. Its EO/IR (electro-optical/infrared) vision package allows for both day and night surveillance operations.
“The IR payload is best in class right now, hence our tagline, ‘We dominate the night,’” he said.
In addition, the Teal 2’s modular design makes it easy for the drone’s end-user to make needed repairs in the field, without going through the time-consuming process of sending the drone back to the manufacturer. This feature is especially popular among Teal’s growing base of international customers.
“End-users, especially small buyers, right now are very concerned about — if they break a drone, having to send the entire drone back,” Hitchcock said. “If you have an entity that buys four and they break one, they’ve lost 25 percent of their capability for the couple of months it takes to send it back to the States, get it repaired and get sent back over.”
The drone’s modular design also allows the end-user to adapt it for their own needs. “You can put bigger arms on it, you can put bigger batteries on it, you can make it so it’ll carry more weight and secondary and tertiary payloads,” he said.
Hitchcock said the U.S. Department of Defense is particularly interested in this capability, as it opens the possibility that the drone could be adapted to eventually carrying lethal payloads. Hitchcock said while Teal’s drones currently are not designed to be armed, “we are getting ready to start a program that’s going to allow that.”
Teal’s products are certified under the DoD’s Blue UAS program, which designates the drones and software systems that are eligible to be purchased by the U.S. military customers. “That’s a huge thing right there,” Hitchcock said. “Having that validation is a must-have in this market space.”
In addition, Red Cat and other U.S.-based defense-oriented drone manufacturers are expected to benefit from the recent passage by Congress of the American Security Drone Act, he said. The bipartisan legislation, passed into law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, prevents any federal government agency from procuring drones from countries such as China, that are to be deemed national security threats.
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.