SkySafe lands $3 million led by Andreessen to disable badly behaving drones

SkySafe, a six-month-old, San Diego, Ca.-based company whose technology can disable drones that are flying where they shouldn’t, has raised $3 million in seed funding. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, with participation from Founder Collective, SV Angel, and BoxGroup.

No doubt the company is serving a fast-growing need, particularly given the number of drones poised to wreak havoc on public spaces from sports arenas to airports. Consider the British Airways flight that was hit by a commercial drone as it approached Heathrow Airport on Sunday, or the World Cup skier nearly done in by a falling drone in December. The FAA estimates there will be 2.5 million drones sold in the  U.S. alone just this year.

“We’re very excited about a future where drones are used by consumers and businesses for all sorts of purposes, but to get there, drones need to be made extremely reliable and safe,” says venture capitalist Chris Dixon, who led the deal for Andreessen Horowitz.

Dixon suggests SkySafe will ensure that drones don’t go rogue, largely via radio waves, which it uses to override a drone’s remote and take control of the aircraft. Perhaps so. What SkySafe is building certainly sounds less menacing than some of the other options to emerge recently, including an anti-drone laser and an anti-drone rifle. Unfortunately, for competitive reasons, the six-person company isn’t willing to dive much more deeply into how its tech works, as we learned when we talked yesterday with cofounder and CEO Grant Jordan. Our chat has been edited for length.

TC: SkySafe has four founders. What’s your background, and how did you come together?

GJ: I graduated from MIT, then spent four years as an officer in the Air Force Research Lab testing anti-drone tech, where I got a lot of exposure to various ways that different groups have come up with for taking down small drones. After I finished my time there, I went to grad school at USCD for computer security, and I [connected with my cofounders] for a security company consulting firm that we founded called Somerset Recon. Between that security work and [my] drone work, we saw a growing threat in the drone space.

TC: What types of customers will you be trying to persuade to use SkySafe?

GJ: Pretty much the entire space of public safety. Airports, prisons, stadiums, other event venues, border protection, critical infrastructure. The number of places that have seen incidents in the past year has grown tremendously.

TC: Would you characterize most of those incidents as accidents or otherwise?

GJ: In the aviation industry, at airports, those look like accidents. But in prisons, there are no accidents. Those are drones that are trying to smuggle in weapons, drugs and other contraband. I wouldn’t classify what we’ve seen in stadiums as accidents, either. [Drone operators] might not mean any harm, but they’re going out of their way to fly into an area they aren’t supposed to be, and right now, there’s nothing an event venue can do about it.

TC: Are they buying what you’re selling?

GJ: We’re still pretty early. We’re working to grow out our base of pilot customers now, with [an eye toward] launching in the fourth quarter of this year. In the meantime, we’re working on test installations with partners in multiple industries.

TC: What kind of early feedback are you receiving? Has anything caught you off guard?

GJ: How much of an appetite there is for this sort of capability in the industry. A lot of these [potential] customers have been looking for a solution for some time and coming up empty-handed.

TC: There are other technologies that can disable drones. Why is your product better?

GJ: There are lasers. There are net-based solutions [that are shot out of cannons]. The one doesn’t have capacity to handle what customers are looking for; hitting something with a net is hard. The other is a more weaponized sort of thing, and I don’t think we’re going to see airports [becoming authorized to plant] giant laser death rays at the ends of their runways.

TC: You say your system doesn’t just jam the airwaves.

GJ: It can mitigate malicious drones, but it’s a surgical solution. It’s not a jamming solution that will knock out other drones and WiFi and other things.

TC: How does it work exactly?

GJ: We’re basically building a perimeter [with nodes] and monitoring facilities for activity. So we monitor airwaves for signals that drones use — identifying them by their signature so we know which are whitelisted and which aren’t — then we can alert [our customer] when drones are detected that aren’t supposed to there so that the operator can take action to safely take over the drone.

TC: Can you drill down a layer? Also, can a truly malicious operator override your override?

GJ: We don’t go into real detail about our tech but it’s relatively unique in that it’s about mitigation, not just detection. We take complete control of the drone. It sees us as the legitimate controller.

As for blocking our technology, not really. Certainly, there’s a lot of complexity involved but we’re bringing tools to take action [on all fronts], whereas now, [these venues] have nothing.

TC: What’s the farthest away a drone can be and still be disabled?

GJ: It depends. There’s a pretty wide range of types of drones and protocols and radio specifications. For the most part, we detect them at the same ranges that the system itself has in terms of its maximum-minimum range. But we’re bound by the same laws of physics.