What if a missile could jet toward a moving target — and then fly back home to try again if it missed?
That's the idea behind the Roadrunner, a novel combination of AI-powered drone, bomb and boomerang designed by the defense tech company Anduril Industries and announced on Thursday.
The company unveiled the product at its Costa Mesa headquarters to a scrum of journalists, showing videos of what the new machine can do. In one sequence, the Roadrunner takes off vertically from a rocky hillside and then flies out to hit a Reaper-style drone in midair. The Roadrunner itself is destroyed on impact, effectively serving as a guided missile. In another sequence, the Roadrunner takes off, flies around and then returns to its launching point, where it lands nose-up on a series of pop-out landing struts, much like one of SpaceX's reusable rockets.
Christian Brose, Anduril's chief strategy officer, said the product was designed to provide the U.S. military and its allies with a way to destroy hostile airborne threats, from small drones up to cruise missiles and manned aircraft, while keeping costs down.
"A few years ago, what we saw coming," Brose said, "was a new class of threats": exploding drones that can be launched en masse, which blur the lines between cruise missiles and traditional drones, and cost only tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch.
"There just wasn't a reliable capability available to bring these types of threats down," Brose said, short of advanced defense systems like the Patriot missile. "That definitely works, but you probably don't want to shoot multimillion-dollar weapons at drones that cost a few hundred thousand dollars," he added.
The Roadrunner moved from a concept to a finished product in the last two years, and costs in the "low six figures," Brose said, though he declined to provide more details.
Measuring about 5½ feet long and equipped with twin turbojets manufactured in-house by the company, the Roadrunner can be kitted out with a variety of payloads. The black Roadrunner-M is the self-destroying version equipped with a warhead depicted in the video on Thursday. The company also has a model with cameras and other sensors mounted on its nose on display. All models can be held for months before deployment in another product, the Nest, which can serve as a storage container and launchpad, and periodically runs maintenance checks on the Roadrunner to make sure that it's ready to launch on command.
Palmer Luckey, Anduril's 31-year-old founder, said that there are plans in the works to build Roadrunners that can destroy targets without self-destructing in the process. He also said that the machine was created to allow other people to build their own payloads for the platform.
"That's the type of thing that's possible when you build a modular platform that allows you to have hundreds of different payloads potentially hosted on it," Luckey said. "I'm supposed to love all my children equally, but this one's definitely my favorite."
Luckey added that a handful of Roadrunners had already been sold to a U.S. government agency, but declined to share any more details on the customer's identity or how the weapons were being used.
To date, the drone has been produced at the Costa Mesa facility, but Luckey said that he has ambitions to produce "hundreds of thousands" of the drones and expand to additional facilities if demand is high enough.
The Roadrunner blurs the boundary between a number of existing weapons in pursuit of economic efficiency in air defense and surveillance, and could represent a new step in the evolution of missiles, drones and other unmanned flying devices.
Drones that can explode on impact, variously known as one-way drones or loitering munitions, have been in development since the 1970s in various forms, and in active use in the U.S. military in recent years.
Anduril already makes one loitering munition, the ALTIUS, after acquiring the original company that produced it, Area-I, in early 2021. The ALTIUS is launched from a tube and can fly to and orbit a target, then either strike (and destroy itself in the process) or be waved off for a crash-landing. Anduril said that these drones have been deployed in Ukraine as part of U.S. military aid packages to that nation.
These smaller drones cost less than $100,000 each, Luckey said. But the Roadrunner, with its twin jets and larger frame, is intended for faster targets and can relaunch after landing without needing to be repaired or repacked into a tube launcher.
The Roadrunner began as a concept two years ago with a few basic priorities: It needed to be able to take off from anywhere, independent of an airfield; be able to sit for months and then launch on command; move fast enough to intercept the intended targets; and work with sensor systems to allow it to autonomously seek out and hit its destination.
In the early days of developing the jet drone, the Anduril team referred to the new project as Rogue, not Roadrunner, Luckey added. "Then we decided you shouldn't call AI-powered weapons 'Rogue.'"
Anduril, which Luckey and a team of co-founders created in 2017, has raised $2.3 billion in venture capital to date and is reportedly in talks to raise hundreds of millions more to continue growing. The company's first success in selling equipment and software to the U.S. government came in 2018, when it began a pilot program of its Sentry Tower surveillance system, connected to its Lattice AI software, with Customs and Border Patrol. Today, hundreds of Sentry Towers are deployed at the southern and northern U.S. borders and at other locations worldwide. Anduril also has signed major contracts with the Australian navy for submarine drones and the U.S. Special Operations Command for counter-drone defense systems.
Anduril is a second act for Luckey. As a teenager in Long Beach, he designed a set of virtual reality goggles and created the company Oculus VR, which Facebook (now Meta) acquired for $2 billion in 2014. A little over two years after joining the social media giant, Luckey drew criticism within the tech industry when he donated $10,000 to an anti-Hillary Clinton political group in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election. He was fired from Facebook a few months later, and decided to start Anduril.
The company was formed not just to bring new technology to the military but also to bring a new business model: Instead of relying on cost-plus contracting, in which government agencies guarantee defense contractors a certain profit margin on top of the costs of developing a new weapon or other technology, Anduril uses the Silicon Valley model of tapping venture capital cash to fund research and development, and then selling those finished products to customers. Luckey believes this combination can disrupt the dominance of the five "primes" — Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, RTX (formerly Raytheon) and General Dynamics — which currently receive most major defense contracts.
Those companies are publicly traded and each worth $60 billion to $150 billion. Anduril, at its last valuation, is worth $8.48 billion, and has no intention of being profitable any time soon. But Luckey sees Roadrunner as a milestone on the path to primehood.
"We never could have built Roadrunner in our first two years — we didn't have any of the building blocks, we didn't have the flight controllers, we didn't have the AI software, we hadn't started building our own jet engines," Luckey said. But after the development process for Roadrunner, "we're building things right now that are taking six months that would have taken us five years if we had started Day One."
Roadrunner is the first of at least five planned products that will use the company's new in-house jet engines, Luckey said, as Anduril continues to build systems that can swap components and be built relatively cheaply.
Plus, Luckey said, Anduril needed to establish a track record of delivering simpler products before it could convince the U.S. military to buy a drone like Roadrunner from a small company.
The Department of Defense, he said, "never would have even bothered talking to us in the first six months of the company."
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