One of those trips to Afghanistan was at the request of the Navy. New flavors of unmanned aerial systems (which I’m just going to call drones) are being deployed constantly, they’re getting cheaper, and they can do all kinds of nasty things to American forces. The Navy needed a flexible, continuously evolving method for sensing their presence.
The DDS has about 20 projects like this running at any given time. Most of them run for two years with full-time DDS staff, but a handful—perhaps three—are staffed by six or so technical experts from across the DoD landscape who spend six months focusing intently on a single project. The six-month projects are called “Jyns.” (A Star Wars reference: Jyn Erso was the courageous lead character in Rogue One who helps the Rebel Alliance. Thick with Star Wars references, the DDS is.) I met the drone group in late August, and the impressive team included a skilled drone pilot, a software developer, a cyberwarfare engineer, an “aircraft hacker,” a user interface/design expert, and a physicist/electronic engineer—all of whom would be going back to their regular DoD jobs at the end of December. Goldstein referred to the group as an “ad hoc A-team,” and I was told that all obstacles to their work that might exist in other parts of DoD—like access to funding, hardware, software, storage, connectivity, or prototypes—had been removed.
The group, which described itself as “in very deep” with the drone community, had begun its work with a monthlong “discovery” process that took them into the field—including in Afghanistan—to talk to service members, technicians, civilians, vendors, and other experts.
After the month of discovery was over, the group had decided to focus on creating a “cheaper box”: a piece of hardware that would contain allow sensors to be inserted—it was unclear to me what form the hardware would be taking—that could listen from wherever it was placed for the presence of known and unknown drones, tied to software that would allow different databases of information about drones from disparate sources to be overlaid more easily. The idea is that these functions will result in spatially displayed data about the drone environment nearby—reminiscent, actually, of WindyGrid, and similarly vendor-independent. New knowledge about increasingly weird drones carrying dangerous payloads can be added on the fly. Other people will decide whether a given drone is actually dangerous; the Jyn team is helping to ensure that assessment is based on as much useful data as possible. As Owen Seely, a designer on the team, put it: “We’re not going to try to do threat analysis. That’s a whole other thing. But if we can just get more data together in a cheaper, quicker, more real-time way, that adds a lot of benefit.”
It’s called Project Holocron, another Star Wars reference. Seely (who sports a beard that puts Goldstein’s to shame) patiently explained to me that holocrons hold ancient wisdom from a Jedi that can be holographically displayed. “So, we thought, we have a box, and it will collect information, and hold all the counter [drone] wisdom for you, and display that to you,” he said. When I asked whether I’d be able to walk through the display—was it actually a hologram?—he demurred. “Right now it’s your conventional kind of mapping software [display].”
By the end of 2019, this Jyn hopes to demonstrate that it’s possible to make a cheap, flexible system for detecting drones (and learning about new ones) and deploy it across the entire government. As Goldstein puts it, “A win for me is to show the DoD, and whomever else, that there is a better integrated way to identify [drones] and be thoughtful about it.” They have two more months to get this done, and they feel pretty confident they’ll be successful.
I met the Jyn team at about the same time I read Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk, a look back at the disastrously bungled Trump transition effort (such as it was) following the 2016 election. The book is a quick and terrifying read about people who distrust even the idea of government taking the reins of giant federal agencies (agencies responsible for, say, keeping track of nuclear material and providing accurate weather predictions) and provides harrowing glimpses of, in the author’s words, “a mentality that everything that government does is stupid and bad and the people in it are stupid and bad.”