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Startup’s Lightweight Drone Could Change Recon

The San Antonio-based startup company Darkhive last year won $1 million in pre-seed funding as it shopped around small, 3D-printed drones.

(TNS) — A decade ago, John Goodson was a Navy combat technician supporting a SEAL team as it prepared to launch a tactical drone from a hill overlooking a village in southern Afghanistan. They were planning to meet with a local elder and using the drone to get a real-time view of the area where the Taliban occupied fighting positions.

Goodson watched as two drone pilots spent 20 minutes assembling the fixed-wing drone, which had a wingspan wider than his spread arms. One launched the aircraft by tossing it into the sky while the other used a computer program to fly it and access its video feed.

The flight was smooth, initially. But when the drone disappeared between two ridge lines about a mile away, they lost the video feed. The mission was canceled and members hiked into the mountains to retrieve the crashed drone.

When they returned to the village later — without a drone and unable to scout the Taliban's positions — they took fire from Taliban fighters using a belt-fed machine gun.

Goodson drew on that encounter as he founded Darkhive, a San Antonio-based company that makes hardware and software for autonomous drones.

"That experience in Afghanistan is what I reflect on when developing our product," he said. "We couldn't get eyes on them."

As it's made advances in the design of its drones for use in military and public safety applications, Darkhive has secured funding and development contracts to ramp up its business. The company last year won $1 million in pre-seed funding as it shopped around small, 3D-printed drones.

It's also in the portfolio of Austin-based Capital Factory, which expanded its Center for Defense Innovation — an initiative that aims to connect the military with entrepreneurial businesses that can provide emerging technology and capabilities — to San Antonio in April.

Darkhive fits that mold.

Capital Factory President Bryan Chambers said the company is "poised to become a leading player in this exciting and growing (drone) industry." The venture capital firm cites increased adoption of drones among commercial and government users, including the military.

Now, the U.S. Department of Defense is backing Darkhive's efforts. The company was recently awarded $1.6 million from the DOD for five research and development contracts. And Goodson estimated the company will bring in $30 million in funding over the next 18 months from federal Small Business Innovation Research contracts.

With that, Goodson's goal is to build drones "for people like me who aren't pilots," he said. "They're easier to use, less expensive, and they work."

Drone landscape

The U.S. military has used drones for decades to gather intelligence, and for surveillance and reconnaissance. In recent years, it has deployed them to carry out strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.

Over the past year, the U.S. has provided hundreds of drones to Ukraine, and it plans to deliver thousands more in response to Russia's invasion of that country.

It has also blacklisted China's giant drone maker DJI and is looking to buy drones from domestic heavyweights such as Northrop Grumman Corp. of Virginia and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of California.

The military contracts with such companies to make smaller drones, adding to a long history of using larger ones like the Reaper from General Atomics, which is 36 feet long with a 66-foot wingspan. The large drones can operate at 50,000 feet for longer than a day.

Now, Goodson, an Austin native who has experience developing military software at the U.S. Department of Energy and leading business contract bids for Chesapeake Technology International of Maryland, hopes to carve his own niche in the growing market.

Darkhive, which has five employees, is developing its first product, known as Yellowjacket. It's an artificial intelligence-powered, 3D-printed plastic drone about the size of a mini laptop and weighing less than one pound.

The Android smartphone-controlled drone can fly at 20 mph for about 15 minutes at a stretch.

The drones, which are not armed, can be carried in backpacks and used for short-range reconnaissance, employing cameras and sensors to detect indoor and outdoor threats.

Darkhive hopes to start selling the Yellowjacket this year for about $5,000 each, which the company considers a low price compared to typical drones that run from $12,000 to $80,000-plus.

"Our goal," Goodson said, "is to develop low-cost, autonomous drones for defense and public safety applications so that anyone can access autonomous robotics and preserve the safety of themselves and their team."

The company is manufacturing prototypes in an Austin facility and shopping them around to potential clients in the region.

"Right now, we're doing small-batch manufacturing," he said. "We are in high touch with our customers in public safety and military and perfecting our product. As we get to scale and transition to contract manufacturing, eventually costs are going to go down."

Potential customer bases

Darkhive's drones are designed to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance at close range, providing immediate tactical intelligence in advance of potential encounters.

"Rather than opening a door and not knowing whether somebody might be armed on the other side of it, being able to send a drone in," Goodson said.

That kind of capability has applications for users beyond the military.

"Think about being able to empower the average police officer, soldier or airman with technology to quickly access threats within their vicinity," Goodson said. "I'm not talking about a threat that's 5 or 10 miles away. I'm talking about rolling up to a structure and needing to understand whether there's a threat on the roof, around it, immediately inside it."

For now, Darkhive's primary customer is the military. Staffers are focused on developing Yellowjacket, with financial support from its recent military contracts, which includes funding from the Defense Innovation Unit's National Security Innovation Capital, a DOD office helping hardware startups develop products.

Meanwhile, the growing number of law enforcement agencies using drones in Texas also represents a potential client base.

In 2018, the Bexar County Sheriff's Office acquired four lawnmower-sized drones for about $73,000, Sheriff's Javier Salazar said during a demonstration that year, using them for tasks such as assessing large traffic accidents, search and rescue, and pursuing suspects.

"We'll be using them a lot," Salazar said at the time, noting that given his office's lack of a helicopter, drones can come in handy when stealth is necessary and where the terrain prevents officers from reaching a scene quickly. In one instance, during a search for a home invasion suspect, a drone with an infrared camera was able to show movement from heat signatures inside a house.

Similarly, the San Antonio Police Department is using drones to help officers respond to vehicle crashes.

Goodson last year introduced a drone to the Austin Police Department, and he hopes to make headway with other agencies.

Though their uses differ, Goodson said military and law enforcement agencies have told him that they need less expensive drones that they can afford to get beat up and lost in action.

"Something is going to happen to these things when they're going to go into a scenario and get knocked with a baseball bat or kicked or thrown, and it's going to break," he said. "On the front lines in Ukraine, there are a myriad of reasons why these drones fall out of the sky or cannot be recovered during operations."

There has long been much hype around autonomous drones. Technology in Silicon Valley-based Skydio's small, A.I.-powered drones have impressed the military and law enforcement partners, especially for their long endurance.

But Darkhive is focused less on endurance and more on ready availability.

"Those companies and their products are great for their specific use cases," Goodson said. "Our customers are not as concerned with endurance or speed. When all I need is to understand what's on the other side of the doorway, I don't care how fast it goes. I don't care how long it lasts."

Instead, Goodson said Darkhive fills gaps in the drone industry by making its product easier to use and more affordable than those of their competitors.

Customers tell him they need drones that the average person can pick up and use with minimal training. In turn, the company has made it possible for people to control the drones with Android smartphones — and they want to add iPhones to the list of the controllers.

They also want to sell drones in bundles.

"I don't want to think about this as one unique special drone sitting in one unique special case that comes off the line and goes out to the customer and they only have one of two of them," he said. "I really want a Pelican case, a box that has 20 of these things stacked in it. And when one goes down, they box it up, they ship it back to us, we repair it and send it back to them, but they're not out of the fight."

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