Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 16 seconds.
The Ghost 4 isn’t just another drone. It’s an autonomous mission platform that carries out its orders unrelenting, non-stop, 24/7. Aptly named, the system is acoustically silent above 300 feet and, like a ghost, it will silently, discretely stalk its prey. The Ghost 4 will report back firing solutions or feed an artificial intelligence (AI) system with a comprehensive operating picture that mission commanders dream of – all done with complete autonomy. The user sets the mission and Ghost 4 executes it, no further input required.
The Ghost is Anduril Industries’ first drone, modeled after helicopters to capitalize on their operational strengths. It operates at low rotor speeds, making it quiet, maneuverable, and capable of holding multiple disparate payloads. Weighing 37 pounds, it can carry a five-pound payload with a dozen viable options, most of them classified. The true magic, though, is an AI core, known as Lattice, which conducts 3.2 trillion operations per second. This AI brain provides unparalleled mission autonomy and simplifies aerial operations. In fact, users can be trained to operate the drone in less than an hour. With two drones, operators could establish a 24/7 intelligence, surveillance and resconaissance (ISR) operation covering a large area for days on end.
Moreover, the Ghost 4 is engineered for the field. “It’s durable, waterproof, has an IPC67 saltwater submersible rating, heat and cold proof, and it’s designed to be beat up and kicked around, get the crap kicked out of it, and keep flying,” explained Palmer Luckey, Anduril’s founder. “It flies hot and high. We can fly max payload at 13,000 feet on the hottest day of the year – you’re not going to find many helicopters that can do that.”
The virtual reality origins of Ghost
Before jumping into the business world with Oculus, Luckey worked in a U.S. Army-affiliated research center in a virtual reality lab on a project called Brave Mind. “We treated veterans with PTSD using virtual reality exposure therapy,” he said. “That was my first exposure to the DoD (Department of Defense). I’ve actually wanted to do national security work my whole career.”
Luckey, of course, went on to found Oculus and design the Oculus Rift, the VR head-mounted display. Following the sale of Oculus to Facebook for $2.4 billion, the then 19-year-old purchased eight helicopters, among them his daily flyer, an EC-120, and a Sikorsky Black Hawk outfitted with a belly pod for firefighting. “I always wanted to be a helicopter pilot,” he explained. “I basically learned how to fly using a VR headset.”
After his departure from Facebook in 2017, Luckey found his niche: Leveraging high-end, AI-based solutions for the DoD at a time when many advanced technology companies in Silicon Valley are balking at being associated with the Pentagon. Luckey embraced the idea of technology in support of American and allied warfighters, creating an ecosystem of top technologists in Orange County focused on the future battlefield of AI-supported operations. His goal: Ensure the warfighter has an edge and every soldier has constant overwatch in the fight.
Innovation is in Luckey’s blood. He found a pasion for developing video game consoles at the early age of around 12. His thought process, he explained, was how does this end? What’s the ultimate consule? His gaming development led him to virtual reality, and he carries the same development approach to innovations for Anduril. Drawing on the expertise of his original Oculus partners – one is a remote control helicopter hobbiest – Luckey and his team have capitalized on their knowledge of helicopter capabilities for the development of Ghost. Through several iterations and multiple failures – including overcoming the challenges of the automated flight control system – they have arrived at Ghost 4.
It’s all about the payload and data
With each variant of Ghost, Anduril has refined the development of every component, from the rotor head, to the ceramic coated bushings, attachments joints, rotor blade locking mechanism, automatated rotor balancing, and – most difficult – perfecting a small autopilot enabling the Ghost to hold a rock solid hover. All these improvements have resulted in a robust payload truck, providing the warfighter a multitude of options, from SIGINT and electronic warfare to radar scanning and electro-optical and infrared cameras.
Small drones are proving to be an essential piece of the ISR mission set, as evidenced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While flight performance is important, what really matters is the payload once the drone is in place, and then what you are able to do with the information. That’s where the Lattice Operating System comes in. Lattice absorbs sensors, taking in data from the Ghost 4, satellites, a 360-degree Anduril Sentry tower, and/or a newly acquired wide-area infrared system for persistent surveillance (WISP) that can detect a small drone from miles away through its infrared signature. That data is basically put into a digital blender and pours out a real-time battlefield or border area picture with decision-grade information.
The Ghost 4 hosts over a dozen payloads to meet an operator’s tactical and/or strategic needs. “Ghost is a very modular system,” said Luckey. “Each payload is a waterproof module. The Ghost 4 is so modular, that we haven’t had a reason to come out with a Ghost 5.
“The cool thing about Ghost – we didn’t use any tricks, it’s just really well engineered, really well designed,” he added. “We [even] designed our blades in house. I’m really proud of the fact that we got the Ghost to work as well as it did without any tricks.”
Luckey would not go into detail about his customers, but he shared a general use case for how the AI core could provide a battlefield advantage. ISR is the primary mission at which the Ghost 4 excels. Sold in pairs, the drone is portable in a backpack or a rifle-sized Pelican case. With two drones, one operator can provide 24/7 ISR coverage, gathering and sending information to the greater Lattice system to inform the battlefield picture.
“I can fly for about two hours on a battery pack, or six and a half hours on a hydrogen fuel cell. I can watch [a target] and, as one [Ghost] begins to run out of fuel, I can launch the second and say, ‘take over this target from the other one,’” Luckey explained. “In the past this would have been multiple operators juggling vehicles, picking a target and handing it off. With Ghost, you push a button, the second Ghost takes off … acquires the target, verifies that it’s the same target with the other Ghost, and then the [drone] that’s running low on battery flies home and can swap [out] the battery.
“By doing this kind of yo-yo operation, you can have one guy doing 24/7 aerial surveillance of targets tens of miles away without being detected for days on end, which I think is pretty unprecedented,” he onserved. “Nobody else is doing anything quite like that.”
Swarm of the Ghosts
In a typical theatre of operations, the Ghost can be everywhere. Instead of one ISR platform flying at 40,000 feet, you can have 40 Ghosts flying at 300 feet, all reporting ISR battlefield data into the Lattice system to feed that overarching mission of battlefield management.
Again, Luckey wouldn’t divulge information about clients, but he described one example of a use case applicable to the war in Ukraine. “Let’s say we’re gonna set up 12 Ghosts and they’re going to be spaced about a kilometer apart. They’re going to fly at a relatively low altitude, and they’re going to [locate] vehicles that have a signature that matches signatures we know about those types of vehicles. It’s pretty easy to hide a vehicle from one type of sensor – if you have an armored vehicle and [it’s being hunted] with a radar, thermal vision, or visible spectrum imaging, you can camouflage it. But you’re gonna have a hard time hiding from all three of those sensors at the same time.”
Ghost excels at finding multiple targets. And those 12 Ghosts will find every target on the battlefield, he suggested. The platform sensors will perform a real-time, cross-comparative analysis of its own blue force tracking to idenify friendly vehicles and personnel and can then provide a map of where blue and enemy forces are located. Furthermore, as enemy armor is detected, a Ghost can peel off from its flight pattern, circle a targeted tank or armored vehicle and provide a firing solution for artillery 30 to 40 kilometers away. Just as impressive, at the same time other Ghost drones will automatically change their formation to fill in the gap left by the circling Ghost to maintain the integrity of the ISR picture.
It’s all done with little human input. Once a mission is set, the Ghost will operate until battery life runs out, and the Lattice core will operate autonomously and only report back when the end-user needs to become aware. In comparison to U.S. government assets like the MQ-9A Reaper, the Ghost does not require any pilots sitting in a 40-foot container in the Nevada desert. The small team operating artillery for precision fires can be the same team operating a dozen Ghosts. Soldiers become incredibly empowered with a distributed ISR system in their own hands, enabling them to build the precise information they need, exactly when they need it, Luckey contended.
Self-sufficient situational awareness
Luckey’s ultimate goal is to provide constant overwatch for every soldier on the battlefield. “Individual troops have a lot of uncertainty about what’s around them. They only know what’s out there based largely on their own eyeballs, or what information gets relayed to them from strategic level assets like a Predator drone or strategic air defense radar system,” he explained. “What I want to do is take these assets that costs billions of dollars and have huge teams of trained operators … and bring it down to the organic unit level where they can own that tech themselves. They can deploy it themselves. They don’t have to have a lot specialized training, and they can have confidence that there’s nothing within miles of them that they don’t know about.”
Current American and western government ISR requirements have tapped the capacity of strategic assets like Reapers and Predators. Per a U.S. Air Force readout on ISR, for example, the need far exceeds system availability. And these systems are incredibly expensive to operate. Comparatively, the Ghost 4 is hard to beat on cost.
Introducing a distributed option like the Ghost 4, with an AI core enabling autonomous mission capabilities, would change warfare. Granted, there will always be a place for larger and higher-flying assets, but a distributed network of systems will provide much greater situational awareness of battlefields, borders or any other area of operations.
Ultimately, Luckey fulfilled his dream of being a helicopter pilot. By developing the Lattice AI core, he’s essentially become the pilot of every Ghost 4 in operation and will leave an indelible mark on aviation. “This isn’t future sci-fi, it’s doable today,” he stressed. “If we deploy at scale, it’s just a matter of getting it done. I’m doing this because I think it’s the most important thing I could be doing. I feel like I’m making a bigger difference here than anywhere else.”