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This new AI-powered drone is both a bomb and a boomerang

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

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."

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