Transforming networks and wireless communications to keep people safe from aerial threats
Jonathan Hunter is the founder and CEO of Department 13. Headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, Department 13 develops counter drone technology with applications in both commercial and and homeland security settings. Unlike directed energy weapons or radio jammers, the company’s Mesmer technology disables unmanned aerial vehicles with minimal collateral damage and radio interference.
Jonathan is a Bronze Star-decorated former U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Officer who has spent decades helping defense, federal law enforcement, and commercial organizations disable Improvised Explosive Devices. He spoke with Ron Gula, President of Gula Tech Adventures, for this interview.
RON GULA: What kind of threats do facilities owners, such as amusement parks and stadiums, have from drones?
JONATHAN HUNTER: That’s a great question. I was in a Homeland Security event yesterday, and I was having a conversation with the security venue owner of the Detroit Tigers facility. He had mentioned to me directly that he had four incursions from drones alone just at his facility. Major League Baseball has taken on the security interest from drones. NFL has taken on the security interest of drones.
Prisons have been inundated with drones as well. We have just sold our product into federal prison system down in Latin America in order to secure their prisons from people dropping in contraband weapons, cell phones, car keys. In Pennsylvania alone, they actually escaped via drone that dropped car keys, the map to the car, and a cell phone that allowed these inmates to escape, costing the state almost $4 million in overtime pay for the law enforcement agencies.
To date, this is a new market. What has been the adoption of Department 13’s technology so far? What kind of customers have you been able to garner?
It’s wide and varied, to be honest with you. We've had people from military around the world coming in to look at us. There’s uniqueness about our products, because we are a commercial based solution that's not ITAR-restricted, so we fall within the Department of Commerce EAR99 classification that allows us to do dual use—so commercial and government—and allows us to states that we are not jamming technology, and the last thing is that we can sell this to any country in the world, except for five: North Korea, Crimea, Syria, Cuba, and Iran.
Now, I've seen some drone technologies. I've seen lasers talked about. I've seen eagles… I've seen seeing people running out with nets. How is your solution different than those kind of technologies?
Being a software-based solution, we do not jam. That would be one. I think 90% of the current countermeasures or mitigation systems out on the market right now are jammers or jamming-based solutions. We don't do kinetics, so we're not a laser. We don't do net guns, shooting nets at drones. We actually effectively communicate to the drone radio, speaking the same language or the same protocol, and we get the drone to do what we want it to do: land in place, land into a designated safe area that we determine where it needs to go to—so if it does have a weaponized device on it, we can safely remove it out of the hazard area into a location where we have emergency responders waiting for us.
Your headquarters is here in Maryland, and I would imagine that in order to develop that kind of capability, you probably have people working for you who come from the intelligence community—people familiar with signals processing. Is that the case?
Absolutely. One of the reasons why we relocated from Virginia to Maryland is because of this ecosystem they've developed around cyber, cyber capabilities; and we find that the resource here and the networks that are based around this location here in Columbia are perfect for our company.
Have you done any outside capital funding? Have you done any type of capital investments?
Absolutely. One of the things we've done is when we pivoted from a research company to a product company, we looked at ways to capitalize, or bring capital into the company. We looked to some VCs. But one of the areas we found was the ASX, the Australian Stock Exchange, was very receptive to technology companies coming over. We did a reverse listing on the ASX. We’ve pulled in over $20 million Australian so far. It’s been very good to us and it’s allowed us to build this product that we are currently selling to the market.
Does the government have a role in this? Have there been any sort of bake offs or military exercises?
They do. They have the largest test and evaluation. It’s called Black Dart. In 2016, we were present at it. In 2017, we were also present at it. And most likely we will be attending the 2018 Black Dart as well. We’ve also done independent trials with U.S. DoD groups and different agencies. We also have been participating in trials and evaluations throughout the world in international militaries, in international governments—different trials that they’re having as well.
We believe this software-based solution is the appropriate one because it can play in so many different areas, specifically in commercial. We talk about government regulations and how we’re looking at this holistically. Right now, you can’t use jammers. The 1938 Communication Act that was passed here does not allow for jamming of communication signals. We’re not a jammer. This puts us in a unique position, because we’re the only one that is doing protocol, true protocol manipulation, where we actually effectively communicate to the drone radio, and get it to do what we do. It puts us in a unique position going forward, especially when the commercial marketplace starts to open up.
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