Thursday, February 22, 2024

When he thought about his time serving in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL ten years ago, Brandon Tseng questioned why his team didn’t have a way to see inside buildings before raiding them. He discussed this with his brother Ryan, who had previously invented a wireless cellphone charger. The Tseng brothers decided to apply technology to national security challenges, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) and drones, to address this issue. Their company, Shield AI, founded in 2015, has now reached a valuation of $2.7 billion and has locations in Texas, California, Virginia, and Abu Dhabi.

Shield AI’s work has already produced real-world results, with their early product being used by the Israel Defense Forces after the recent attacks by Hamas. The company’s drone, called the Nova 2, can autonomously conduct surveillance inside buildings and underground without GPS or human pilots.

Shield AI is one of several start-ups, including Anduril Industries, Autonodyne, EpiSci, and Merlin Labs, that are revolutionizing war-fighting tools and supporting the United States in maintaining its military advantage over China. These companies are developing advanced technology, such as AI-controlled planes and autonomous drones, to gather and analyze information, make targeting decisions, and act faster than humans.

Despite its success, Shield AI faces challenges in securing funding from the Pentagon compared to larger, established defense contractors like Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. Additionally, the growing role of AI in national security raises concerns about granting software programs life-or-death decision-making powers and the need for regulation.

Shield AI’s ultimate goal is to build an AI pilot system that can be used across various aerial platforms, from small drones to fighter jets. The recent demonstration of their drones in North Dakota showcased the progress they have made. The drones autonomously carried out a surveillance mission, avoiding no-fly zones, and quickly completing their tasks. However, Shield AI recognizes that winning contracts from the Pentagon requires lobbying and an understanding of the government procurement culture.

The Pentagon’s shift towards embracing smarter systems and AI comes with the need to accelerate adoption responsibly. The success of these technologies is crucial for maintaining US military superiority and preserving the rules-based international order. Shield AI plans to invest $2 billion over the next five years to advance its AI pilot system, but they must navigate both technological challenges and bureaucratic hurdles to achieve their goals.

Shield AI’s software is distinct because it goes beyond autopilot programs and uses AI to make decisions based on observations and objectives. This was demonstrated in the Air Force competition called AlphaDogfight when Shield AI’s software defeated programs from other vendors, including Lockheed Martin. The AI-guided plane was able to maneuver and target accurately, outperforming the human-piloted planes.

Brandon and Ryan Tseng represent a new wave of military contractors with a Silicon Valley mindset and a passion for solving national security challenges with advanced technology. Their upbringing in a household where their father, an electrical engineer and small-business owner, combined scientific knowledge with an entrepreneurial spirit influenced their approach.

Brandon Tseng’s experiences as a Navy SEAL inspired him to develop new tools for the military, recognizing the need for better situational awareness during missions. Ryan Tseng’s background as a tech whiz provided the necessary expertise to bring their ideas to life. Together, they are pushing the boundaries of technology and reshaping the future of warfare.

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