The use of drones is not new in the US military. The use of attack drones is not new, but the creation of attack drones as part of a network of attack drones designed to counter other attack drones? That’s something new. Time to meet the “Interceptor.”

Birth of The Interceptor

The developer of the Interceptor, Anduril is a company founded in 2017 by some of the heaviest hitters in the world of technology and artificial intelligence. According to their website, “We are a team of experts from Oculus, Palantir, SpaceX, Tesla and Google exploiting breakthroughs in consumer and commercial technology to radically evolve our defense capabilities.” In other words, these are some really smart people who are looking around at what technology is already out there and seeing different ways to use it to provide security and defense.

A render of Anduril’s Interceptor drone. (Anduril)

One Drone to Rule Them All

A quick Google search for Anduril returns, surprise, the company website. Scroll down one and you see that Anduril is also the name of Aragorn’s sword in The Lord of the Rings. Some people, like me, say “Cool!” Others have no idea what a Lord of a Ring is. For those not in the know, Anduril is the sword carried by Aragorn, the one true king. Forged from the shards of Narsil… That’s a deep rabbit hole.

The point being, Anduril the sword was forged from the shards of an older sword that had done some very cool stuff. Anduril the company has taken shards of intelligence and innovation and forged them into new technologies. Just like the sword, Anduril was made for battle, Anduril the company’s Interceptor drone system is made for battle, and so much more.

Screen capture from Lord of the Rings, Return Of The King

From Entertainment to Defense

Anduril was founded by Palmer Luckey, co-founder of the Oculus Virtual Reality system that provides immersive entertainment at an attractive price point. Luckey co-founded Oculus in 2012, sold it to Facebook for $2B in 2014, he involuntarily left Facebook in 2016 perhaps under pressure by a small but vocal Leftist element that disagreed with his more right-wing views.

After he left, he turned to the defense sector and founded Anduril.

In 2018, Anduril began testing a system of drones and sensors at the southern border of the US. These systems were called Lattice, and the data they provide allows border patrols to build real-time 3d models of conditions at the border. The Lattice system gave border patrol agents a comprehensive view of people, places, and things at or near the border, within range of the sensors. Adding drones to the mix provided another layer to the information maps produced by the system.

Marine Testing

Anduril’s Lattice Sentry Towers provide autonomous perimeter defense at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, allowing base security to patrol busier areas. (Lance Cpl. Jose GuerreroDeLeon/Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps has also tested the Lattice system. In late 2018, the Camp Pendleton Twitter account shared a video highlighting the Marines’ use of Lattice sensors and drones to patrol a section of the California coast. Being able to passively scan an area, respond with active surveillance as threats emerge, then respond with force if necessary, is leaps and bounds ahead of traditional active surveillance techniques. Developing the Interceptor to autonomously intercept and “kill” other rotary or fixed-wing drones, shortens the response chain of dealing with unmanned aerial vehicles employed by an aggressor.

The Drone Explosion

Drones have become a thorn in the side of military planners since they became widely available. Small, hand-held flying machines with long ranges and recording capabilities are a far cry from the Reaper and Predator drones that overfly war zones. These are piloted by actual pilots in mock-up cockpits around the world. The Reaper and Predator pilots have been trained in flight schools, learned Federal Aviation Administration requirements, and have credentials showing they understand aerial flight, its restrictions and requirements. Hand-held drone operators, on the other hand, only have to prove they have the money to pay for a drone. After that, good luck!

A drone reportedly captured by the Russian military after an attack on two military bases in Syria.
Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Virtually untraceable and untrackable in the air, drones can be used by enemies to surveil friendly locations, disrupt air operations, and conceivably deliver targeted munitions. In January of 2018, a “swarm” of 13 homemade drones attacked Russian facilities in Syria. Crudely built, each drone probably cost a grand or so to make, and were outfitted with wing-mounted grenades. Russian officials state they destroyed or neutralized all the drones, briefly blamed the US for the attack, then said it had killed those responsible. Problem is, it is questionable that anyone really knows who was responsible.

Automated Defense Drones

Responsibility questions aside, Anduril’s Interceptor is meant to automate the detection, response, and destruction of enemy drones, no matter the provenance. Tapped into the Lattice system, the Interceptor drone is designed to neutralize unknown aerial targets identified by the Lattice system of sensors and artificial intelligence. Using the Lattice network, operators build a real-time image of their area of operations. Parameters can be set to recognize friendly drones while building a virtual profile of threats. As more threats are perceived, the information database grows and the machine learns to autonomously distinguish anomalies. If these anomalies are airborne, the Interceptor will, well, intercept them. The Department of Defense likes the idea so much they offered Anduril $99M to develop it.

Technology, or Magic?

Anduril founder Palmer Luckey says he intends to make American warfighters into invisible technomancers, with power over the autonomous systems that are the future of warfare. Technomancy is a sci-fi and fantasy trope where magic and technology overlap. Famous sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Someone plucked from the year 1800 and dropped into 2021 would marvel at all the magic around him, not able to comprehend the technology that allows God-like instant communication, silver flying beasts, or electric demon-lights.

The warriors of tomorrow may regard the M-4 or even the F-16 as unreliable antiques versus emergent technology. Artificial intelligence and autonomy are the magic weapons of the future. Technomancers are currently in training to wield those weapons.