Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and law enforcement agencies across the country are beginning to adopt autonomous flying drone technology, with Skydio potentially leading the way.
Skydio is a Redwood, California-based startup in the business of developing AI-controlled and piloted autonomous aerial drones.
The company, founded by MIT grad Adam Bry and former engineers for Google’s Project Wing delivery drone program, is backed by $340 million dollars in venture capital funding from the likes of San Francisco’s VC firm Andreesson Horowitz, AI chipmaker and GPU designer Nvidia and even NBA star Kevin Durant.
According to a recent Forbes report, the CBP initially invested in developing self-flying aircraft through the non-profit research development company Mitre Corp, for the purpose of locating and tracking targets on the ground without the need for human intervention. Given the vast border area, drones needed to be able to fly on their own continuously. According to a CBP spokesperson, it was too “cumbersome” for human pilots to cover day in day out.
In the end, the project didn’t quite pan out. CBP said that they “tested but did not field operationally” as “the gap from simulation to reality turned out to be much larger than the research team originally envisioned.”
However, this year, CBP will be testing Skydio’s drones, which are currently being used by more than 30 law enforcement agencies across the country, including in the Austin, Boston, and Sacramento police departments, as well as by Los Angeles’ Fire-and-Rescue Unit.
Speaking about working with the CBP in the future and the flack the company could receive from that, Bry said, “We understand that our drones are going to be used in potentially polarizing and charged situations. But I think that steering away from that just because it’s controversial or polarizing would be the wrong thing to do.”
Skydio’s tech, use-cases, and battle against competitors; regulations
The drones are very high tech. Skydio claims to have developed the most advanced AI-powered drone out there – it is a quadcopter (a drone with four rotors), that can latch on to targets and pursue them while dodging obstacles and capturing everything on high-quality video. According to Skydio, the AI software can even predict a target’s next move, whether it’s a person or a vehicle. The drone costs around $1,000 dollars, which is more expensive than their Chinese competitor’s price point.
Chinese tech company DJI (Da Jiang Innovations) currently controls the largest share of the unmanned aerial drone market, but there is controversy surrounding the use of the Chinese drones in the U.S. Before Christmas, the Trump administration banned American companies exporting software or other gadgets to DJI, citing the drones use in surveillance against Xinjiang Ughyurs, an ethnic group that is currently being oppressed and imprisoned by the Chinese government.
Law enforcement agencies are also concerned about the optics of using Chinese drones for surveillance, as well as the threat of Chinese spying, since DJI could send US government or citizens’ private data to the Chinese government. However, DJI’s drones are much cheaper than Skydio’s, and are still the go-to for most law enforcement agencies in the U.S.
Furthermore, DJI stresses that users can put their drone in an offline mode that ensures data can’t be sent anywhere. According to Forbes, independent security companies have checked for backdoors that can be used by the Chinese government to acquire data, but none have been found.
Despite DJI’s assurances, Skydio’s all-American branding is appealing to some law enforcement agencies. In addition to Skydio’s contracting for the military and CBP, it has also been reported that the company sold their latest model, the X2, to the DEA for $15,000.
In Burlington, Massachusetts, last year, the Skydio drone proved itself in action by assisting a SWAT team in a 5-hour standoff between police and two armed suspects hidden in a large suburban house.
The drone was able to fly close to the building to look through windows while dodging various obstacles – trees, a clothesline, and an umbrella. “It just flows around, which makes it a lot easier when you’re talking about high-risk situations,” says Sage Costa, who was controlling the Skydio.
At present, FAA regulations only permit self-flying drones when a pilot is observing and can regain control of the flight. Other restrictions prohibit the flying of drones at night without a waiver.
Skydio is working on lobbying the FAA by hiring a former associate deputy attorney general, and joining the FAA’s drone advisory committee, in the hopes to clear some of these regulations. See more at https://skydio.com/