Built by Luckey’s new company Anduril Industries, the two-meter aircraft can be carried in a backpack and is designed to withstand sand, mud and seawater during military operations. Anduril, who announced the drone on Thursday, said the Ghost 4 has a flight time of 100 minutes and can be operated autonomously or remotely. It can carry cameras, radio interference systems or lasers to illuminate targets. And it can drop packages weighing up to 35 pounds.
The on-board artificial intelligence algorithms have been optimized to identify and track people, missiles and battlefield equipment. A Ghost 4 drone can join forces with other Ghost 4 drones to form a data exchange swarm to relay information to Lattice, Anduril’s situation monitoring system.
This versatility is by design, says Luckey, calling the Ghost 4 a “Swiss Army Knife that can do it all”. Customers including the US Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection suggested improvements to the designs of Ghost 1, 2, and 3 that were never publicly disclosed.
Luckey, 27 years old and founder of Anduril, wants to combine the disruptive ethos of today’s high-tech startups with the old school defense business. That means bringing artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robotics and sensor fusion into an organization that historically has focused more on tanks, battleships and fighter jets.
It also means going against the grain of a technology industry, whose employees often have different views about making products for the military. More than 3,000 Googleers petitioned the search giant to stop working on the Pentagon Maven project, which would have applied the company’s AI technology to video processing from military drones. (Google has let the contract expire.) Microsoft employees have also rejected a contract for the military use of HoloLens augmented reality technology.
Luckey says that if the US does not modernize the military, the country will fall behind “strategic adversaries” like Russia and China. “I don’t think we can win an AI arms race if we think it won’t happen,” he said.
Anduril is named after Aragorn’s sword, also known as the Flame of the West, in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Views of military readiness are not Luckey’s only break with some of the big tech cultural norms. He was a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, who worked in an industry that loudly protested Trump’s policies on issues such as immigration and transgender rights. Facebook acquired Oculus, Luckey’s first startup, for a whopping $ 3 billion in 2014. However, Facebook fired Luckey in 2017 after his somber role surfaced in a poster campaign against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Facebook said Luckey’s political views were not involved in his firing.
Luckey and Anduril have clients in the U.S. government, but the November election could mean a new government with different priorities. Luckey says he won’t worry if the administration changes. His sales pitch is aimed at the Pentagon, not the White House. And he sees bipartisan support for knowing what is happening along the U.S. border where the Ghost 4 is likely to be deployed.
“The Department of Defense is a timeless machine,” he said. “It doesn’t move under four-year presidential cycles.”
Anduril’s Ghost 4 drone
For years, the term “drone” has meant massive, expensive, remote-controlled aircraft like General Atomics’ Predator, which is used to monitor and launch missiles in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other hot spots. But a civil high-tech industry has used the word for much smaller planes, like the quadcopters that real estate agents use to photograph homes for sale or the slightly larger models that Amazon wants to use for package delivery.
Anduril’s Ghost 4 is a mixture of both ideas. It’s small and battery-powered, but has military tasks like zapping enemy sensors with lasers or sending target information after detecting an approaching cruise missile.
And it can combine with its fellow drones to form a cooperative swarm. If you can’t communicate with a base station because of wireless interference, an attempt will be made to transport data to another drone that can, Luckey said.
The unusual helicopter-style design is quieter, more efficient, and can carry more payload than a traditional quadcopter, he said. It competes with more traditional drones, as well as fixed-wing drones, including some drones deployed on the increasingly high-tech frontier of the United States.
Ghost 4 drones connect to Lattice, a system that collects data from thousands of sensors. This includes high-resolution videos, images from infrared cameras, and radio emissions from hostile equipment. Everything is shown on a 3D map.
Luckey’s vision of science fiction war
Currently, military customers are using Lattice on laptops or phones. In the longer term, Luckey believes that soldiers who wear augmented reality headsets that overlay details provided by grids with their real world surroundings will also tune in.
In a 2018 lecture, he was eager to talk about soldiers becoming “superheroes who have the power of utter omniscience.”
However, technological superiority does not always win wars. Vietnamese soldiers withstood the US military’s most advanced weapons in the Vietnam War. But Luckey believes Lattice will dispel some of the fog of war and help keep track of who is friend and foe. “If you can remove 90% to 95% of the uncertainty, that’s a big deal,” he said.
And one day, his Oculus-inspired take on Call of Duty glasses, AR headsets named for the popular military video game, will come true on the battlefield, he believes. “I know that sounds like a fantasy, but I’m trying to build that.”