There are two main reasons why Rick Whittaker founded AirShare, an Ottawa-based company that 3D prints guided missiles designed to disable drones.
The first, he says plainly, was fear. A pilot by trade, the idea of a drone flying into his airspace and gumming up his engines disturbed him.
“I’ve had three engine failures, and I didn’t want a fourth because a drone hit my plane,” Whittaker says.
The other was a bit more common: market demand.
Improvised explosive devices are often attached to low-cost drones in conflict zones, effectively creating a cheap remote bomb. Special forces around the world have cited drones as a growing threat to combatants, which has driven defence and security firms to develop a variety of electronic- or ballistic-based countermeasures.
For Whittaker’s part, the market need and his own personal concern converged with a shared passion between him and his son: model rockets.
“In model rocketry, everything has to be safe. The parachute has to come out (and it) has to return to the landing pad,” he explains. “We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually make this thing steerable so that it would return safely to its landing pad?’”
Without access to military-grade guidance software, Whittaker and his son turned to off-the-shelf components to prototype a cheap missile that could head in a particular direction and get close to a target.
But like horseshoes and hand-grenades, close is close enough for AirShare. When a missile gets within striking distance of a drone, it explodes, frying the potentially sensitive information on the hardware and deploying a latex cloud that snares the drone’s propellers and parachutes it back to earth in a neatly-tethered package that also captures any debris.
“Yoga bands in the sky,” Whittaker calls them.
This all got underway around the end of 2016. The next year was spent in labs and fields prototyping the design.
AirShare got a leg up in this department from MadeMill, the in-house makerspace at Bayview Yards where the company resides as part of Invest Ottawa’s accelerator program.
The initial concept for the missile involved a 12-week manufacturing process that was both labour-intensive and highly subject to error. An idea from the prototypeD team that runs MadeMill – to instead 3D print the entire body from plastics – drastically reduced production timeframes and opened up a new value proposition.
One missile can now be printed in 10 hours with just a printer, a bucket of plastic, a circuit board and some explosive. Line up a few printers on a rack, and the utility for resource-intensive operations on the frontlines is obvious.
“We now offer an option where you can 3D print this in the field,” Whittaker says. “That wouldn’t have been possible without MadeMill.”
Beyond the defence sector
AirShare has been selected by the federal government to demonstrate this solution for its special operations forces, but that’s not the only market available to the company.
Whittaker says the company has been approached by “one very famous pop singer’s security team” to tackle the issue of drones at concerts. Illegal recording devices often fly above stadium venues, representing both a security risk and a potential violation of broadcast rights.
AirShare’s missile could quickly and discreetly neutralize a drone above a concert, where it would either go unnoticed with the light-and-sound spectacle or blend in with a fireworks display.
Whittaker says the private market is ripe for anti-drone solutions: concerts, prisons and VIP protection all round out the defence sector’s needs.
And it probably goes without saying: Pilots like Whittaker might feel a bit more comfortable coming in for a landing if airports would use it, too.