Darkhive drone startup wins $5M Air Force contract for advanced drone autonomy

By Iris Gonzalez
Darkhive produces drones for the U.S. military, courtesy photo

San Antonio-based Darkhive is one step closer to scaling its autonomous uncrewed drone systems for military and public safety use. The startup has won a $5 million Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with the U.S. Air Force AFWERX Autonomy Prime.

AFWERX, the Air Force office in charge of finding new and innovative ways to use technology, has set up a new program called Autonomy Prime to learn about the autonomous technologies companies have under development — and how the military could adapt them for its missions.

Defense industry executive and U.S. Special Operations veteran John Goodson launched Darkhive in Sept. 2021. Since then, he and chief technology officer Steven Turner have developed an effective, affordable alternative for military and law enforcement use. Darkhive has focused on developing affordable, U.S.-manufactured uncrewed systems using open hardware and software interfaces to provide life-saving situational awareness at home and abroad.

Goodson and Turner have extensive backgrounds in systems engineering and defense. They are producing affordable alternatives because the domestically-produced drones for the military and public safety sectors are much too expensive for practical use. 

“An open government-owned framework optimized for rapidly integrating, testing, and securely deploying software to edge systems has been at the center of our mission from the beginning,” said Goodson.  “We’re honored to have the opportunity to contribute to solving some very hard problems for DOD [U.S. Department of Defense] and, most importantly, delivering for the end-user on the front lines.”

Darkhive has previously been awarded contracts with the Defense Innovation Unit’s National Security Innovation Capital (NSIC) contract, multiple SBIR contracts with the Air Force, and a Small Business Technology Transfer award partnered with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. NSIC is a Department of Defense initiative helping dual-use hardware startups advance critical milestones in their product development via funding.

In 2022, Darkhive won five research and development contracts with DOD valued at $1.6 million. The startup expects an additional $30 million in equity-free funding from Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase III government awards by the end of 2023. 

“To achieve dynamic, autonomous systems within the DOD and with foreign partners, we have to break away from fragmented, vendor-locked approaches to software development and secure deployment on uncrewed systems,” said Turner. “The deployment and security of software have experienced significant advancements over the past decade, but these transformative changes have yet to be fully realized in uncrewed platforms and meeting evolving end-user requirements.”

Founders’ military experience drives drone innovation

Drones play an important role in military and law enforcement operations. Because of their effective flight, working abilities, selective and detailed recording, and bird’s-eye view, drones are unique in their ability to reach places that may be too dangerous for military and law enforcement personnel. However, unpredictable environments can often lead to drone crashes and dangerous recovery missions to retrieve expensive equipment.

The U.S. military uses drones for reconnaissance missions. In contrast, many police departments use them to monitor traffic conditions, assist with search-and-rescue operations, and capture evidence at a crime scene.

Specialized drones for military or law enforcement use often cost thousands or more per unit. Risking personnel to retrieve an expensive drone under potentially dangerous conditions isn’t an option, so costly drones are often lost or unused.

Goodson said that the starting price for their first product, the YELLOWJACKET drone, is $4,999, in contrast to competitor prices ranging from $12,000 to $80,000 per drone

“Our goal is to get our drones priced below $1,000 per unit,” Goodson said. “We’re both U.S. Special Operations veterans, aerospace and software engineers, with a business background and experience as product developers. Our focus is singular — to provide a seamless interface with affordable autonomous robotics systems.  The only way to achieve this goal is to put the user at the center of the design process.”

Darkhive founders, from left: David Moroniti, director of hardware engineering, John Goodson, CEO, and Steve Turner, CTO. Courtesy photo.
Darkhive founders, from left: David Moroniti, director of hardware engineering, John Goodson, CEO, and Steve Turner, CTO. Courtesy photo.

The San Antonio-based startup is launching its line of U.S.-manufactured drones by the end of 2023 to coincide with the formal opening of the first Darkhive office in the Alamo City.  Hiring plans include growing their team of eight to 30 in the next 18 months.

When Goodson and Turner launched their startup, they focused on creating autonomous platforms powered by artificial intelligence that can navigate themselves with intuitive interfaces the average service member can use. The startup can manufacture drones at a significantly lower cost since their operational experience informs their approach.

“Incredible gains have been in autonomous robotics systems used by the military,” Turner said. “Now, with small tactical drones, we can take these out into the field and pilot them ourselves. We aim to spearhead the revolution in autonomous systems.”

The featured image is of a man holding a Darkhive drone. Photo courtesy Darkhive.

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