When Brandon Tseng, a former Navy SEAL, reflected on his time in Afghanistan, he questioned why his team didn’t have the capability to see inside buildings before raiding them. He shared this concern with his brother Ryan, who had previously invented a wireless cellphone charger. Together, they sought to apply technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), to address national security challenges.
They founded Shield AI in 2015, a company now valued at $2.7 billion, with 625 employees spread across different locations. Their goal was to use AI to transform war-fighting tools, such as drones, by enabling them to perform reconnaissance and surveillance tasks autonomously. They even explored the possibility of turning fighter jets into AI-controlled robot drones.
Their efforts have paid off, with one of their early products being deployed by the Israel Defense Forces. The product, a small drone called Nova 2, was used to search for barricaded shooters and civilians in buildings targeted by Hamas. The drone can conduct surveillance inside buildings or underground structures without GPS or human pilot assistance.
Shield AI is part of a group of start-ups, including Anduril Industries, Autonodyne, EpiSci, and Merlin Labs, that are revolutionizing war-fighting tools and giving the United States a military advantage over China. These companies are developing advanced technologies for gathering and analyzing information, such as pilot-less planes, swarms of autonomous drones, and faster targeting decision-making capabilities.
To showcase their technology’s capabilities, Shield AI conducted a test on the prairies of North Dakota. Three larger military drones took off, and once airborne, were controlled autonomously by Shield AI’s AI programming. This demonstrated the efficiency and effectiveness of AI in carrying out surveillance missions.
However, Shield AI faces significant challenges. The company is currently losing money as it invests in research and plans to invest $2 billion over the next five years to build its AI pilot system. Furthermore, they have only received a fraction of the funding that traditional defense contractors like Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman receive.
The Pentagon’s slow transition towards smarter systems and AI is a hurdle for Shield AI and similar companies. Critics argue that the Pentagon needs to accelerate its adoption of responsible AI to maintain military superiority. Michèle A. Flournoy, a former deputy under secretary of defense, warned that without faster adoption, the United States could lose its military advantage.
Shield AI’s software distinguishes itself by its ability to make decisions based on observations and objectives without constant human direction. The software’s capabilities were highlighted in a competition where it defeated programs built by established vendors like Lockheed Martin. This victory illustrated the potential of AI in military operations.
The Tseng brothers come from a background of innovation and entrepreneurship, influenced by their father, an electrical engineer and small-business owner. Brandon Tseng’s experiences as a Navy SEAL sparked his interest in building new tools for the military, and his frustration with the lack of technological capabilities during raids and building clearance operations in Afghanistan.
Ryan Tseng, with his background in technology, played a crucial role in developing Shield AI’s AI-powered solutions. The company represents a new type of military contractor that combines Silicon Valley startup culture with a desire to address national security challenges with sophisticated technology.
Despite their success, Shield AI still faces obstacles in gaining funding from the Pentagon and navigating the complex government procurement process. Nonetheless, the Tsengs and their team remain determined to solve technological problems while actively engaging in lobbying efforts and understanding Washington’s workings.