Anduril Industries says it wants to become the Lockheed Martin
On Friday, the Southern California-based Anduril pulled the wraps off its latest ambitious bet: an autonomous jet-powered drone designed to serve as an interceptor of aerial threats ranging from large drones to manned aircraft. Anduril says it already has a buyer that it will only describe as a “U.S. customer” and it’s set to launch production at a rate of hundreds of them a year.
The company says the drone, called Roadrunner, is powered by twin turbojet engines that enable it to reach “high subsonic speed” — presumably approaching 700 mph. It launches vertically from a climate-controlled box called a Nest that Anduril says will keep the drone ready to go for months at a time in harsh field conditions.
The concept is that squadrons of Roadrunners can be dispatched to assess a threat picked up on radar or reported by observers. If the blip turns out to be a hostile aircraft, a Roadrunner equipped with a warhead will intercept and blow it up, along with itself. If it’s a false alarm, the drone can return to base and land on its tail vertically.
The drone costs in the “low hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Luckey, the loquacious tech wunderkind, told reporters on a video-conference call, and its value is enhanced by its reusability.
“This is a totally new category of weapon that’s never really existed before,” he said. “It’s somewhere between a reusable missile and a full-scale autonomous aircraft.”
Roadrunner, which Luckey first described in broad strokes to Forbes last year, was designed to defeat an emerging class of aerial threats that lie between small quadcopters and ballistic missiles. That kind of threat has been seen in Ukraine, where Russia is trying to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses with barrages of missiles and one-way kamikaze attack drones like Iran’s Shahed.
“The requirements that we built into Roadrunner were focused on addressing the threat, where it was going and then where we believe it’s going to continue to metastasize beyond where it is today,” said Christian Brose, Anduril’s chief strategy officer.
Anduril declined to share specs on Roadrunner’s capabilities, but claims that compared with similar drones on the market it has three times the warhead payload capacity, 10 times the one-way effective range, and is three times more maneuverable.
The engines, which Anduril developed in-house, are “the most power-dense turbojet engines that have ever been built,” Luckey said.
The company says a single operator can launch and supervise multiple Roadrunner squadrons. The aircraft are capable of autonomously determining flight paths, including intercept courses against a maneuvering target after being given the command to destroy.
A big part of Roadrunner’s value, Luckey and Brose said, lies in the ability to use it to scope out an unclear threat rather than scrambling a manned fighter, which is expensive, or having to make a quick decision to launch a missile.
“The benefit of the Roadrunner is that you can launch without regret,” said Brose.
A hasty error by an air defense battery can lead to tragedy, like the 2020 downing of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran at a time when Iranian forces were on high alert for potential American retaliation to their missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq.
“I think that Roadrunners, most of their missions are not going to be blowing up,” said Luckey. “Most of the time it’s going to be launching, minimizing your risk and getting more information on what exactly things are.”
It’s unclear whether Roadrunner could be used to intercept faster fighter jets, but it could take some stress off air forces in places like Taiwan and Japan, which have been forced to scramble their fighters at a high tempo in recent years to respond to airspace incursions by Chinese aircraft.
Anduril plans to produce non-kamikaze Roadrunners with different types of payloads, such as electronic warfare equipment. Luckey also said the company envisions using them to fight forest fires. If the beginning of a blaze is picked up by satellite or other means, a Roadrunner could jet to the scene and drop a fire suppressant. (Fighting wildfires has become a preoccupation of tech titans following the blazes that have swept across the U.S. West recently.)
The performance claims Anduril is making sound plausible, Zachary Kallenborn, a drone expert who’s an adjunct fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Forbes. Rising use of autonomy will eventually render obsolete one the most effective current defenses against drones — jamming the radio control links to their remote pilots — calling for more brute force countermeasures like Roadrunner, he noted.
But the interceptor drone’s value proposition seemed unclear to him based on the limited information Anduril is sharing.
At a couple of hundred thousand dollars a pop, using Roadrunner to down a drone like a Shahed-136, which is estimated to cost from $20,000 to $50,000, may make more financial sense than firing a $4 million Patriot missile. But Ukraine appears to have had success taking out the medium-size drones with much cheaper bullet fire from heavy machineguns.
RTX is supplying the U.S. Army with a jet-powered air defense drone called Coyote, which the company has reportedly said could cost as little as $5,000 apiece, and is effective against what are classified by size as smaller Group 1 and Group 2 unmanned air systems (Shahed is a Group 3).
Larger Group 4 and 5 drones like China’s Reaper-like CH-4 are comparable in cost to conventional air defense missiles and can be effectively shot down by them, said Kallenborn. Case in point: the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, which Ukraine used to celebrated effect in the opening stages of the war, has disappeared from the battlefield as the lines have become more static and Russia has set its air defense units.
“It’s not obvious to me where [Anduril is] aiming for as their niche application and what the relative value is,” said Kallenborn.