PLEASANT GROVE — In a scenario that one Utah businessman says is much closer to reality than not, the world will be in need of technology that will ensure our collective safety both for, and from, an explosion of drones expected to be plying the airspace just over our heads.
Utah's Fortem Technologies Inc. is stepping in to fill that need with innovative micro-radar technology that will help thwart drone-based terror threats as well as coordinate the travels of the 7 million drone craft that are expected to be occupying low-altitude corridors in the next three years, engaged in transporting goods, critical medical supplies, inspecting and monitoring hard-to-reach places and yes, even transporting humans.
Fortem CEO Timothy Bean said his company has developed the "smallest, most compact and highest-performing radar system in the world" in TrueView radar for the small airborne vehicles.
"Drone technology has the ability to automate our society and economy to a level we haven't seen," Bean said. "Package delivery, search and rescue, public safety, the agriculture business, infrastructure inspection and so much more will be fundamentally changed ... but having the ability to enable safe drone operations beyond line of sight is the holy grail of that effort."
Fortem's technology, developed by Bean and partner Adam Robertson, adapted technology they acquired from the U.S. Department of Defense. The team improved and miniaturized a unit that was originally the size of a shoebox to the TrueView product that weighs a pound-and-a-half and is of similar proportions to an average pencil box.
Bean said their tiny radar array can "see" in the dark, through clouds and in inclement weather, something impossible to achieve with alternate systems. It's also much more precise.
"Radar is very, very accurate," Bean said. "Optical or radio frequency scanning can be off by 50 to 100 feet."
That pinpoint accuracy is critical for maintaining safe distances for what will be a very busy flying space, the company notes. But it also allowed Fortem to develop a system using its radar array and a drone-deployed net-and-tether system to perform midair takedowns of other craft with nefarious intent.
Fortem's DroneHunter was developed in partnership with the Defense Department and is designed to physically neutralize drones that become a safety threat because of their payload or for occupying no fly zones around airports, installations like nuclear power plants or data centers or, potentially, becoming an attack threat to combat troops or people gathered in open-air spaces. While no noteworthy drone-based attacks have occurred outside regions of conflict, many security experts believe it's merely a matter of time before a civilian catastrophe occurs as a result of a drone-deployed weapon.
"Drone and airspace protection is becoming an increasingly higher priority for critical infrastructure," Bean said.
Last year, the Pentagon hosted a drone-neutralizing contest at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The "Hard to Kill" competition was aimed at zeroing in on the best method to counter drone-based weapons already in use by Islamic State forces in conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. Last fall, Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, director of the Dfense Department's Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, told the New York Times that drone threats were likely to expand beyond the regions of war.
“This isn’t just an Iraq and Syria problem; it’s a regional and global problem,” Shields said.
Fortem's DroneHunter system has been deployed on military unmanned aerial vehicles and has recently become available for civilian commercial use.
While the company's technology has helped advance defense strategies, the wider application of TrueView will likely be seen in developing ways to manage the commercial drone airspace, which in the U.S. is likely to fall between the 200-400 feet above ground zone.
Utah is situated to play a leading role in addressing the proliferation of unmanned aircraft. Paul Wheeler is the lead project developer for the Utah Department of Transportation's Unmanned Aircraft Systems effort. He said rapidly evolving drone technology, coupled with the sheer number of new craft expected to be flying in the near future, has put the pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration and state agencies to figure out how to catch up.
"There are a lot of questions to answer as far as managing the expected traffic volume of unmanned aircraft in Utah airspace," Wheeler said. "We may need to build an entirely new system that will not be dissimilar from the current air traffic control that oversees traditional aircraft. We have partnerships in place and the work is underway...and Fortem is a part of those efforts."
Bean explained that the hurdle to overcome is what the FAA calls expanded operations, which encompasses flying beyond line of sight, night flying and flying over people. Bean said work being done by Utah officials mirrors efforts in other states and falls under the auspices of the FAA and NASA. Once federal and state authorities deem safe conditions have been established for expanded operations, the designated drone-zone will soon be occupied with a fleets of the flying craft.
Bean isn't bashful about estimating how significant a role his company may play in this newly blossoming world of drone flight and flight traffic management.
"We need to unleash one of the last natural resources in the world and that’s the airspace below 500 feet, and we need to do it safely and securely," Bean said. "And that’s what Fortem is going to do."
Fortem's success arc underscores Bean's confidence. Having launched less than two years ago, the privately held company has already attracted $15 million in venture funding and is establishing a global commercial market in addition to its work with the armed services. The burgeoning development efforts for human-carrying drones, or air taxis, is also likely to be an additional boon to the business. Bean estimates his company will hit a $1 billion valuation in just a few years and is also happy to provide a glimpse of what is in store for the average Utahn in a Fortem-driven, autnomous vehicle futurescape.
"The day will come when you will go out to your driveway and get into your VTOL (vertical take off and landing drone), it won’t be a car," Bean said. "Type in your destination, maybe Provo to Snowbird, and you’ll be there in 8 minutes.
"The vehicle will register with a service, like a cellphone provider, and your route will be logged in so you’ll get there safely with an onboard Fortem radar. On the route there, you’ll travel a corridor with Fortem radar networked across the airspace, keeping you notified of other vehicles."
And when can we expect this all to come to fruition?
"That level of autonomy is likely happening by 2030," Bean said.