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Anduril’s New ISR Drone Looks Like A Helicopter. Not Surprising Since Cofounder Palmer Luckey Flies His Own UH-60 Black Hawk.

Anduril Industries cofounder Palmer Luckey says his company didn’t want to “use the same blueprint that everyone else was using” when designing its new Ghost 4 intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance drone. In other words, he wanted to avoid designing a small quadcopter configuration UAV.

“Everyone makes quadcopters because they’re easy to manufacture and easy to design. They’re also easy for a computer to control. You’re just modulating the RPM of four props.”

One look at the Ghost 4 convinced me that the company’s designers had looked to another blueprint – the helicopter. Anduril’s new ISR drone looks like a scaled-down Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe, a huge heavy-lift helicopter designed for the Army in the late 1950s. The resemblance isn’t coincidental.

“We decided we were going to look at what missions we were going to do, what we needed to carry, and figure out the optimal airframe,” Luckey says. “When you look at the core aerodynamics involved, the helicopter is actually a very good design.”

It’s a design that Palmer Luckey enjoys firsthand. The former Oculus founder told me he has a collection of seven to eight helicopters that he flies regularly including a UH-60 Black Hawk, presumably U.S. military surplus.

Helicopters, even scaled-down ones, says Luckey, are more efficient than quadcopters, combining higher payload capability, greater powertrain flexibility and quieter, slower-spinning rotors. He acknowledges their mechanical complexity is a challenge, particularly for what is intended as a rugged ISR drone. They’re also tough to control.

“It is much harder to design a software flight controller that can fly a helicopter, especially at the smaller end where it’s not passively stable from being big like a full-sized manned helicopter.”

He cites small radio-controlled helicopters in talking about the flight control challenge, suggesting another source of inspiration for the Ghost 4. Throughout our interview, he used the term “helicopter” repeatedly, falling back on the industry-standard “UAS” or “drone” only a couple times. In his eyes, Ghost is clearly better than the competition in part because it’s a miniaturized helicopter.

The Ghost of AI

The headline features of the Ghost 4 include a modular design, longer flight times (approximately 100 minutes) than the prior version, better teaming/swarming with other Ghosts, and capacity to perform other missions from signals intelligence and electronic warfare to cargo delivery and stealthy intrusion.

Underpinning Ghost’s capabilities, and those of other Anduril Industries products including perimeter (or border) security sensors and a counter-UAS drone, is the company’s Lattice artificial intelligence software. Lattice is an AI backbone that Anduril describes as using “computer vision, machine learning and mesh networking to fuse real-time data into a single, autonomous operating picture.”

A Lattice AI Core is in all of Anduril’s products, including previous versions of the Ghost, a building block that Luckey says elevates Anduril above the competition. As Forbes senior editor Jeremy Bogaisky previously noted, it’s difficult to judge the effectiveness of Anduril’s systems or those of other drone/counter-drone makers, some of which also claim similar technology.

Anduril says the latest iteration of Lattice AI is capable of performing 32 trillion operations per second, which it says is nearly 100 times faster than computational speeds of other sUAS on the market. The company emphasizes the autonomy this gives Ghost, working independently or in swarms. Any ISR platform, particularly unmanned, with the ability to do onboard image processing/edge computing and thus pass data directly to tactical users is of great interest to the U.S. military.

It doesn’t hurt that Ghost is also made in the USA. That’s a plus from a U.S. government acquisitions standpoint as well as a good fit with Palmer Luckey’s well-known support for President Trump. DoD has attempted to court agile Silicon Valley tech developers with limited success for years, but have politics made any difference to sales of Anduril’s offerings?

“In my admittedly limited experience, it hasn’t come up,” he says. “It seems like DoD is pretty apolitical. Most of the people seem to be firm believers in a meritocracy for getting the right system.” Luckey adds that Anduril got “strong bipartisan support for our border protection program … I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Payloads, Price & Buyers

One of the strongpoints for Ghost 4 versus its quadcopter (largely DJI or DJI-inspired) competition is its payload flexibility. A rail along the top, and forward fuselage structure under the main rotor offers several waterproof payload bays for sensors, radios, even a loud-hailer.

The six-and-a-half-foot long Ghost 4 also features a nose mounting point for electro-optical/infrared sensors or unspecified effectors (lasers, jammers?). The drone can be disassembled and packed in a backpack or box for deployment. No weight was given but its fine machining suggests it might be heavy.

You can swap the powertrain out, too. The direct-drive motor just below the rotor is easily replaced, according to Luckey. “It’s not that expensive and it’s literally just four bolts.” Powertrain life is currently limited to about 500 hours but Anduril is trying to get the time between overhaul or replacement up to the “thousands of hours,” Luckey says.

Ghost 4 will likely cost well into the thousands of dollars. Luckey cited the $3,000-plus cost of high-end Chinese DJI drones in a blog he wrote about Ghost 4. Asked how his product compares, he won’t give a specific price but concedes that it will be significantly more expensive.

“We’re not trying to compete with them on a dollar-to-dollar basis. Most of our customers are willing to spend more to get more.”

Current customers for previous versions of the Ghost and Anduril’s counter-drone “Anvil” sUAS include the U.S. Marines, U.K. Royal Marines and Future Commando Force, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a “few other federal government customers,” according to Luckey. Some of these will upgrade to Ghost 4. The Royal Marines will likely be the first Ghost 4 customer, swapping their earlier Ghosts for the latest version. Anduril couldn’t confirm a finalized contract by press time.

Anduril is keen to play up the improved swarming capabilities of Ghost 4, claiming that Lattice AI enables a single operator to control dozens over a wide geographical area, their collective sensors and smarts revealing valuable intelligence and images. However when pressed, Luckey does something few drone makers are eager to do. He (admirably) acknowledges that unmanned platforms and AI are only as good as the classic “junk in, junk out” maxim suggests.

“It’s not going to have the flexibility of a human pilot to pick up anomalies. If you say I want a swarm of 24 Ghosts to cover a few hundred square mile area and tell me where surface to air missile sites are and they see something happening below unrelated to [the SAM tasking], that’s something they’ll end up missing.”

One of the most notable things missing from Ghost 4 is an easily detected, loud quadcopter noise signature. Josh Wolfe, co-founder of Anduril investor, Lux Capital, tweeted that Ghost 4 is “super silent” as seen in company video of the drone. It may not be super silent but it is decidedly quieter than commercial drones.

Ghost 4’s main rotor spins slowly at under 1,000 rpm, Luckey explains. That makes controlling the UAV more challenging but its low disc loading means it’s audibly discreet.

“We’re quieter than every DJI drone, even when we’re carrying 10 times more payload,” Luckey quips.

Just like a helicopter.

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