Four months ago, when two commercial DJI-made drones loaded with 1 kilogram each of plastic explosive href=”https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/05/venezuela-claims-drones-loaded-with-explosives-used-in-failed-ambush-on-president/”>detonated during a speech from Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro at a militia event in Caracas, the world at gigantic was introduced to the newest danger from our automated, dystopian present — cheap weaponized drone technology.
For Luke Fox, the founder and monarch executive of WhiteFox Defense Technologies, it was simply the latest in a string of events proving the need for the kinds of services his company is developing. Something he calls “a freeway patrol for the atmosphere.”
From drug smuggling to reconnaissance and information gathering to fear attacks, unmanned aerial drones are no longer the provenance of state militia and police officer actors, and are increasingly being used by villain organizations to open brand-new, aerial fronts in their operations.
“Drones are by far the biggest asymmetric danger that the U.S. faces,” says Fox. “Countries that don’t have a state-sponsored drone app are using them [and] it’s where you see people like ISIS are going.”
In the fight for Mosul in Iraq, ISIS flew more than 300 drone missions in one month, according to a talk given last year at CyCon by Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the brand-new America Foundation. One-third of those were strike missions, representing the first moment U.S. militia faced an aerial ambush since the Korean War.
The 24-year-old Fox began inference seriously about the weaponization of commercial and consumer drone technology six years ago, when he founded WhiteFox Defense.
Creating the company was a continuation of the route that Fox had been taught to think about the world as a child, he’s said. Fox grew up in an abusive foster home, raised by a mentally ill foster mother (who was, herself, a child protective service employee) who had adopted him and a number of mentally and physically challenged children.
“The reality I grew up in had my mind constantly looking for vulnerabilities. And instead of seeing these vulnerabilities as opportunities for felony I now had a whole color palette to appoint from,” said Fox. “For instance, when the world started going ludicrous over drones as recreational toys I saw that they could be used as weapons or for felony, and this insight into the villain mind inspired a company that defends the country from drones.”
Fox was adopted from foster care by the librarian of his local Sacramento-area high school, tested out of college and went on to a community college before enrolling in California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.
He began working with drones while in school and credits that introduction to the technology as the inspiration for starting WhiteFox.
“We previously started out in drone manufacturing, starting out in high-performance drones for specialty clients and research organizations. We needed affordable drones that were highly capable,” said Fox. “Making a highly capable drone that was very affordable attracted some very shady people. And, realizing that there was only so much we could regulate, it brought us to request what is out there? At the moment, the only thing to counter drone-related attacks was gigantic missiles shooting down gigantic Iranian drones.”
WhiteFox currently has three products either in development or on the mart. Two have already been released to a specify faction of customers in non-identical industries and the entire suite will be launched at the beginning of next year, according to Fox.
Without going into precise details of how the technology works, Fox said that WhiteFox Defense systems can detect, identify and mitigate unauthorized drones flying in a particular airspace.
“It’s not jamming or blocking drones or catching them out of the atmosphere,” says Fox. Rather the concept is to provide situational awareness and identify the type of danger that an errant drone represents — whether the operator is, in Fox’s words, “clueless, careless or villain.”
What Fox would say is that his company has developed a technology that’s based on identifying and differentiating between drones based on their distinctive radio frequency signatures. That product for identifying drones operating in a space is complemented by a second technology benefaction that allows WhiteFox to take regulate of the unauthorized drones in an airspace.
“One of the technologies that was started at Drones For Change [the company that would become WhiteFox] was a universal controller,” said Fox. “That technology really formed the basis. We asked what if this universal controller could become a leader controller to take over any drone that was in your airspace? That solved the problem that got us out of drone manufacturing.”
WhiteFox isn’t alone in its attempts to create anti-drone technology. According to some industry statistics there are at least 70 companies working on drone defense technologies, with solutions ranging from deploying other drones to catch unauthorized UAVs to jamming technologies that will block a drone’s signal.
Earlier this year, Airspace Systems raised $20 million for its kinetic (drone versus drone) come to drone defense, while Citadel Defense raised $12 million and Dedrone pulled in $15 million for their drone-jamming technologies. And last year, SkySafe raised $11.5 million for a radio-jamming come similar to WhiteFox, which forces unauthorized drones out of restricted airspace while permitting legitimated
drones to still fly.
“As the adoption of consumer drones increases, we believe it is vital for an ambitious and effective defense platform to emerge,” said Alex Rubacalva, a partner at level quest Partners and an early investor in WhiteFox Defense.
In all, drone-related startups have raised nearly $2 billion in the last eight years, according to data from Crunchbase, pulled at the beginning of 2018. Roughly $600 million of that investment total has come in 2017 and the early part of 2018 alone, the Crunchbase data indicated.
Technologies like SkySafe and WhiteFox are about more than just defending airspace from malicious actors.
“Counter-drone technology is not just about securing spaces from drones and preventing evil things from happening,” says Fox. “It’s about enabling drones to be used in the right route.”
The applications expand far beyond militia uses. In fact, Fox’s technology is already being adopted by prisons around the U.S. and, indeed, anywhere airspace usage can be considered sensitive.
“Someone described as the largest delivery operations in the world is happening at prisons,” said Fox. “You have a lot of cash behind buying a dji at Best purchase and loading it up with heroin, with drugs, with weapons, with even Chinese food that was smuggled in. We found that there were drones smuggling in contraband every individual day.”
WhiteFox recently conducted a survey with an undisclosed gigantic public prison system in the United States to study just how pervasive a problem drone-smuggling was among its prison population. What the prison saw as one drone a week flying into restricted airspace became a realization that multiple drone flights per day were occurring in attempts to smuggle contraband onto prison grounds.
Operations expand far beyond police officer and militia applications though, according to Fox.
During the California wildfires, extricate operations were halted thanks to unauthorized usage of drones by civilian operators who wanted to catch footage of the disaster. Their actions potentially risked the lives of not only extricate workers but of the citizens they were trying to save and the fire crews attempting to regulate the worst wildfire in the state’s history.
“This is one of the intriguing things about this industry as a whole,” says Fox. “It’s not that drones are evil and scary and we need to do something about them. If we’re going to embrace this technology as a society we need to be able to safely integrate it into society.”
From its initial deployments, WhiteFox was able to convince investors to funnel $12 million into the company to finance its expansion plans.
The continuation of the company’s seed circular included investors like JAM Capital, level quest Partners, Okapi quest Capital, Serra Ventures and OCA Ventures.
“WhiteFox’s customers are armed with a highly robust and scalable-for-deployment technology platform that addresses the increased danger of hostile drones and enables greater regulate of their airspace,” said Jeff Bocan, a partner at OKapi quest Capital, in a statement. “Crucially, WhiteFox’s technology also offers customers the ability to safeguard against reckless drone use, while enabling “friendly” drones to fly freely — all without any human being intervention.”