Every Entrepreneur has a story. Tim Bean, CEO, Fortem Technologies, shares his classic but unique journey of how his small team of PhD scientists produced a defense product that is now in demand with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference held at the Gaylord National Harbor. Our Air, Space and Cyber Conference coverage is sponsored Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
CEO, Fortem Technologies
AFA 2018 Air, Space, Cyber Conference
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference and Trade Show, a leading gathering of U.S. Air Force leaders from around the world. Our coverage here is sponsored by Elbit Systems of America, Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies, and we’re at the Fortem Technologies stand to talk to Tim Bean, who is the CEO of the company.
Tim, you guys are a fascinating little company. I think about 2.5 years old if I recall correctly. And you guys have developed a whole series of unprecedented technology including this, which is the world’s smallest radar, to create drones as part of your drone-buster system that allows a drone to capture another drone with a net.
So one of the things you’re doing is putting domes of security to prevent small drones, all sorts of different kinds of unmanned aerial aircraft from penetrating a secure space. Talk to us a little bit about the TrueView Radar that makes it possible, and how you guys designed this kind of an architecture that goes well beyond jamming and some of the other technologies some of your competitors are using.
Tim Bean: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today. We are very excited about our technology.
We made it small on purpose because we saw a problem where traditional counter-drone activities would use RF systems, and what we’re seeing a trend is there’s no longer an operator. There’s no longer a video downlink to jam. Where these drones are flying autonomously on a waypoint, and so they’re blind, RF systems are blind and there’s nothing to jam or stop the drones.
We also knew that traditional long-range radar had problems with topology, seeing behind buildings, those types of things, seeing lots of small, fast-moving objects.
So we designed this very small radar that you could distribute, like a fabric mesh, over your base or over your area, your stadium, border, oil refineries on CONUS or wherever it might be, to give you total airspace awareness. And with that total airspace awareness, you now have security checkpoints in the sky. Just like you have doorways and fences for the ground, you now have these zones of awareness of what’s happening in your airspace. That’s the first thing.
Once you know it’s happening in the airspace, we have artificial intelligence algorithms that look at pattern of life and different patterns of the air traffic. The radar is very good at classification, and with that classification, we can see if something’s coming in fast, slow, with a bomb or a package. Based on the size and the speed we can classify these different drones. Drones versus birds, all kinds of things.
We have what’s called an integrated response. Just like if someone’s coming through the doorway, you measure their intention, you have an integrated response.
One of those responses is what you call our drone buster or our drone hunter. What we do is that radar, the radar is on the drone hunter. This gives us a distinct advantage, so it works day and night, at long range. So it’s not using optics or something that has problems in the sun or those types of things.
The drone hunter will autonomously fly, patrol an area, lock onto its target and shoot it down with a net and tow it away.
We also have other effectors you can put on the drone hunter. Drapes. You can put a drape net on, you can put an explosive, sort of like a firework kind of effector for a large number. We’ve done many tests with multiple drone hunters and multiple drones coming into an area, and so we’re very proud of the technology. We own all the tech end to end. So the radar on the ground, all the software, the drone, the radar, the triggering, the net guns, all the technology end to end, so it makes for a very maintainable and robust solution.
Mr. Muradian: And I should say that it was your partner who actually came up with the radar technology and then brought you in as the chief executive to build the system around the TrueView Radar.
Mr. Bean: Absolutely. My partner is Adam Robertson. He’s worked 11 years in radar systems. He developed this small radar technology over six or seven years ago, and his team of PhDs formed the foundation of Fortem Technologies when we formed the company 2.5 years ago. We raised money from Silicon Valley, $20 million. Boeing, Mubadala, many investors have looked at our technology, proven our technology, and we’re very proud of it.
It’s been a long road, even though it’s only been 2.5 years, you know, working with DARPA, Air Force Research Labs and others. But we have something now that we’re very, very proud of and it’s very, very effective for both military applications and commercial applications in the continental United States.
Mr. Muradian: You were talking about the importance and the characteristics you need from a dog-fighting standpoint. Talk to us a little bit about how this is really going to get to autonomous dog-fighting in a certain degree. Because there are guys that are going to want to penetrate, and you’re going to have to respond.
Mr. Bean: Yeah, thank you for that. My partner, Adam Robertson, he’s a radar genius. And the team of PhDs that we’ve brought together to form the company really formed a really strong baseline of technology. Because you need to know what’s in the airspace first.
My background is software engineering, building very large software platforms. That’s another secret sauce of Fortem Technologies, is we’re aggregating all of this data and information about the airspace in real time. And with that airspace awareness, being able to make decisions very quickly. Because in a drone world, things are small, things are fast, things are close up, things are close to the ground, and so we’re engineered for that exact use case.
And so with our radar on the drone hunter itself, it can receive a cue to a sector with a drone coming in, and in less than a minute, it will lock on and dog-fight. It’s using radar. A lot of the attackers coming in are coming in on a waypoint with GPS, with no RF, but they have some detect and avoid capability. We’re prepared for that.
Our radar can lock into their drone, follow it around, and shoot it down.
Now for those that want to keep the asset, we can tether it and tow it away to a safe location. Or maybe you don’t want to keep the asset, or maybe you’re, the AI is telling you that that drone is not a real threat. Maybe it’s just doing ISR. We can pursue it at a very safe distance so you can go find — there may not be an operator, but when that drone lands with its SD card, with its video, our drone hunter will hover and tell you exactly where it’s at, so when it gets picked up those people can go apprehend the people that were flying the drone, maybe where they shouldn’t be, or the enemy, see what information they’ve captured.
Mr. Muradian: All right, so now I want to ask you, you brought the Air Force Research Lab version of your drone buster’s drone, and — drone hunter, excuse me. Pardon me. Drone hunter system and you guys were also on the Today Show, which was a pretty good segment you guys had which was very, very cool, to introduce it to a broader audience.
But you also have a commercial version of this that’s actually superior. And then you’re looking at a miniature helicopter that gives you about 150 miles an hour of speed and about four hours of endurance.
Mr. Bean: Yes.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us about how you see this technology evolving. What’s the size of it? How large are the vehicles that you’re going to be able to apprehend? Because some of these, you know, drones you can get on the market are rather sizeable.
Mr. Bean: Absolutely. So our system is software, the radar, the netting system, all completely integrated, and it’s UAV platform independent. What we’re finding is each customer almost wants their own UAV platform. DARPA had their own platform that they had chosen. Air Force Research Labs had chosen a platform. We have other customers in CONUS that want something a little bit higher speed. So we’ve worked with them on a platform.
There’s another platform which is tube launched, where you can put the drone in a tube and launch the drone from a tube, and then as it spreads its wings leaving from the tube, the radar takes over with the netting system.
You alluded to a helicopter system that can go for a duration of three to four hours, over 150 miles an hour, and be a drone hunter using our radar. These helicopter systems are fairly agile, high speed, long range. And so some customers are looking for that kind of use case.
So our system of technology is around the dog-fighting, the tracking, day and night, through clouds, with a small radar at long range, and taking very, very accurate shots with a drape net, an explosive device, or just a net. And I think you’ll be impressed with our accuracy. That accuracy makes all the difference.
Mr. Muradian: What’s next, right? I mean like anything, you have investors. The investors want some return. What’s great is you guys with this little stand as a first-time exhibitor here at Air Force Association, but are getting a lot of through-put in terms of some very, very senior leaders.
What’s next for the program? What’s next for the product? What’s next for the company?
Mr. Bean: The southern border is a hot topic in our world today. We can really help the border agents, so the border agents can stay in their car. You can post a TrueView Radar system here with a Wi-Fi. It can plug right into their cigarette lighter or it can run off a battery. Instead of standing there and getting binocular eyes, night vision, you know, they can patrol a very large space very safely in their car.
Over 40 border agents have been killed in the last 15 years, and so border agent safety. This is something that makes them, is a force multiplier, it’s an awesome product for that.
We’re going along, a lot of stadiums. We just launched a product a few months ago, lots of interest from stadiums. Oil and gas is another vertical where they have a lot of security on the ground, but they’re fairly vulnerable from the air.
Just a month ago in Saudi Arabia, Aramco had a refinery attack by a drone. And then what happened in Venezuela, with the President of Venezuela assassination attempt by drone.
Mr. Muradian: You’ve got to hand it to them, that was pretty clever. I mean terrifying, right? But a lot of folks predicted, if you put this kind of a capability, somebody’s going to decide they can hang a hand grenade from it and then it becomes a deadly weapon.
Mr. Bean: Yes. I’ve spent the last ten years of my career fighting ISIS, and it’s hard to recruit a suicide bomber. It is hard. Usually, they have to threaten their family and make them do things they don’t want to do. With a drone, especially autonomous drones, there’s no more operator with a joystick. You set waypoints on an iPad, you’re 50 miles away. The drone takes off four or five miles away. And it does its deed, whatever it’s going to do at a stadium, a refinery, et cetera. And FBI Director Ray testified before Congress that a drone attack is imminent in the United States, and we believe that’s going to happen. That’s why our investors invested in us. We want America to become proactive, to solve this problem. But we want to be ready when that black swan event, that 9/11 happens.
We have the technology here to solve it and we can do it in a way that doesn’t impact the RF spectrum. Something that’s very private. Something that’s very safe at a standoff distance. Something that’s not going to cause collateral damage, and something that works really, really well.
Mr. Muradian: You had said that your preference is the net system or something that’s non-kinetic because of the collateral damage. You don’t want a 40-pound drone landing on somebody, particularly if it has a deadly payload that may be on it.
Mr. Bean: That’s right.
Mr. Muradian: It’s much better it detonated in the sky or farther away.
Is the U.S. government, everybody’s been talking for a long time about increasing innovation, put speed, we have Dr. Roper who is head of the Strategic Capabilities Office, so the Pentagon is now the Air Force Acquisition Executive. He has all of these goals to accelerate acquisition, as does Mike Griffin who’s the Under Secretary for Research and Development, as well as Ellen Lord on an OSD, in Acquisition and Sustainment.
From the standpoint of a little guy who’s got a better mousetrap, what are some of the challenges? Because you’re in sort of the valley of death right now, right? I mean you’re good enough to be strong, but not strong enough to stand on your own, so you’re in this kind of limbo field. Is this process moving more quickly? Are the opportunities there for you to be able to move quickly? What are the kind of institutional skepticism that you’re dealing with? Because if you look at it, at the end of the day people don’t necessarily want to do something new and different. They want to be able to be like well, this other thing may be a little bit more comfortable than something which is kind of a revolutionary difference in terms of a mini-radar architecture which is not stuff that we tend to think about when solving problems like this.
Mr. Bean: Yeah, I don’t know exactly how to answer the question. I do know that as a young company we started off in the SIBR program with DARPA, Air Force Research Labs, doing a lot of scientific experiments. So things don’t work the first month, the first year, and it’s hard. And we appreciate the patience of our partners and DARPA and AFRL working through this. It’s now been 2.5 years, and I can say it works very well.
I’m told that the THAAD system that protects California from nuclear bombs from North Korea is effective 62 percent of the time. Our kill rate is in the high 80 percent now on a fast-moving drone. Our latest commercial drone now goes 67 miles an hour. In the first half of next year, we’ll have one that goes 100 miles an hour. If we can get funding for our helicopter, because those helicopters are over $600,000 and it’s hard for a small company to buy one of those, but if somebody wants something that’s three to four hours of endurance and has that kind of money to spend, we can work on a program to make that work within six months.
So we’re fast and agile.
I would say that we’re getting the attention of people. Boeing, through their HorizonX Venture Firm arm, has taken notice of us. They were part of our Series A fundraiser, we raised over $15 million, $20 million in total raised.
So I think Boeing as a validator helping us, working with their VGS Group in the DoD has helped a small company like us, you know, kind of meet people. But we want to partner. We’re small, but we are 70 people. PhDs, scientists. And we can get things done fast. And we’re looking forward to working with whoever wants to do that.
Our differentiator is the radar, so we’re not just a drone that flies around shooting nets. T’s a radar system, day and night, long range. Makes all the difference. And it’s radar on the ground that can cue it. Integrate it with whatever cameras that you have down there below.
So it’s easy with all this fun hardware, with drones and radar to get lost on the software that goes with it. And anybody who wants to see a demo of our Sky Dome software package and its power and how it integrates everything together and gives you total airspace awareness, we’ll be glad to show it to them.
Mr. Muradian: But is the customer themselves interested, right? So at least your investors are good, and you’ve got some technological outlets and you’re making progress on the technology. But from the buying end, is there the receptivity? Or is this something that is actually going to become commercial, municipal, industrial in its application and from a national security perspective might be a little bit slower to pick up?
Mr. Bean: I think my view of it, nothing’s blown up in the U.S. from a drone. So as you look at the priority list of what to go do, there’s probably other things for that base commander or other people to go do and to figure out. When something blows up, I think that procurement and everything’s going to line up.
Right now when we talk to procurement, they see our specs, they see what we do, and they see us, they say okay, you’re solving 82 percent or 90 percent of the problem. Can it do this? Can it do that? And we say well, in three months or in six months it can do that. And not having a program of record, it makes it hard to get that initial sale.
Now we do have some very early adopters in the Marines and Navies that are buying one and two units to test out, and we appreciate their partnership in learning.
On the procurement, you know, they’re looking at RF systems right now because they think the threat is the 12-year-old boy with the joystick taking pictures or getting in the way of jets. We believe that that joystick’s going away and that 12-year-old boy is not the main problem. We think people that are going to cause you harm are going to be flying on waypoints, autonomous, and you really need a radar system.
People are solving for different things in different places. We solve for the nefarious criminal case where you need a radar, where people are flying autonomously.
Mr. Muradian: Tim Bean, who is the CEO of Fortem Technologies. Tim, absolute pleasure. Very, very fascinating. Great meeting you.
Mr. Bean: Great.
Mr. Muradian: We have a common friend in Bruce Lemkin, and I almost felt like, you know, when you were saying hey, $600,000 is a lot, I felt like saying like hey, let’s do a GoFundMe. Here’s Tim. He needs $600,000 for a new unmanned helicopter.
Sir, thanks very much. Hopefully, somebody watches this and helps you guys out.
Mr. Bean: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
Mr. Muradian: Best of luck. Thank you very much for your time.