In five months this year, 30,500 drones were captured on America’s southern border, almost 4500 of them at night, according to Congressional testimony by Homeland Security officials.
“At the border the main issue is the Mexican drug cartels using drones to … shuttle drugs across the border and to conduct surveillance on the agents,” said Mr Vornik, a former investment banker.
US Customs and Border Protection declined The Australian Financial Review’s request for an interview. “The program as a whole is rather sensitive, therefore we don’t release too much about capabilities or ongoing efforts,” the agency said.
Mr Vornik said the US bureaucratic agency the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Systems Office (JCO) was expected to issue contracts on drone-fighting technology worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the next several years, and the Air Force and Navy would follow suit.
“So we believe that we are on the precipice of something really large at the moment,” Mr Vornik said. “We expect to double or triple our revenue, so $20 to $30 million in revenue this calendar year, but that excludes any of those really large possibilities with JCO.”
DroneShield’s main product is the drone gun, which is basically a jammer in the shape of a rifle.
“You point the gun and press the trigger, it emits a jamming signal, and the drone doesn’t get destroyed, doesn’t crash, but slowly comes down to the ground. You can retrieve it, collect the flight and video data from it and hopefully understand who was behind it,” Mr Vornik said.
If you can take a $2000 drone and you take down a $5 million tank with it, well that’s a very good use of money, right?
— Oleg Vornik, DroneShield CEO
The equipment is unique, has no Chinese inputs, and an entire inhouse manufacturing unit in Australia and a back office that constantly upgrades the technology.
DroneShield’s US boss, Matt McCrann, said the drone industry had become huge and the technology was rapidly evolving. So were the illicit uses of the technology.
“The other day we saw that there were people sending drones to the Canadian border. They were transporting handguns, via drones, across the border,” he said.
DroneShield equipment is being used at the US Airforce base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, home to the Air Force’s fleet of Global Hawk remote-piloted surveillance aircraft, to prevent spying and other attacks.
Mr McCrann talked about multiple prison incidents where drones had delivered contraband to prisoners, from escape kits to mobile phones. In that instance, there was a greater desire for tracking as opposed to jamming. Better to let them deliver the goods and trace where the drone ends up, so as to apprehend the offenders.
Focus on US Army
DroneShield has provided counter-drone technology to the Ukrainian armed forces against Russian surveillance drones such as Orlan-10. Other nations’ military prefer to do it themselves.
“We spoke with the Taiwanese a bunch of times in Taiwan, but I think as a customer, they are a bit like French or Israelis, where there’s a very strong preference to try homegrown technologies, even if they are a little inferior,” Mr Vornik said.
“We sold to the French army. We sold to the Brazil army. We sold to the Australian Army, to the New Zealand Ministry of Defence, we sold to the UK military. In the US, our main focus is the US Army where we’re ready-made sales and expected to do more.”
“What’s happening in Ukraine right now is going to be in the military textbooks for the next 20 years. Everybody’s watching very closely. There’s a big emphasis towards the whole unmanned thing because, for one, you are obviously not putting a person’s life at risk. And second, there is the whole asymmetric warfare thing where you say, if you can take a $2000 drone and you take down a $5 million tank with it, well that’s a very good use of money, right?”
US Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall and chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday have raised the need for more spending on drones and counter-drone technology.
“Drones and other unmanned systems are going to pose significant challenges for us and that’s part of why we’re looking at modernising our air and missile defence systems,” Ms Wormuth told the Atlantic Council this month. “And I would say drones are an issue not just overseas but here at home as well.”
Mr Kendall has called drones “the change we have to accelerate”, while Mr Gilday said unmanned technologies were an area that needed to be invested in heavily.
Australian fund managers Tribeca Investment Partners and Monash Investors have taken a stake in DroneShield. Mr Vornik owns about 4 per cent of the company.