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The Pentagon's Unified Command

The Pentagon wants to build a robot army. Nelson Paez hopes to make it as easy to operate as possible

Published: Jun 21, 2012 06:34:04 AM IST
Updated: Jun 21, 2012 08:54:36 AM IST
The Pentagon's Unified Command
GETTING IN SYNCH The Ballista drone system; DreamHammer co-founder and CEO, Paez

The Pentagon has a big command-and-control problem. Not insubordination among the troops. It’s that unmanned systems for land, air and sea can’t “talk” to one another. Every drone contractor builds proprietary control systems, making it impossible to integrate different machines or for the military to tinker with existing systems. “It can only be described as byzantine,” says retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, once the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and thus in charge of drones that have been deployed to devastating effect in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

That’s great for drone builders. The unique software codes and operating features lock the Pentagon into an exclusive and expensive relationship.

Nelson Paez is trying to break that lock. His company, DreamHammer, has spent $5 million building an operating system, Ballista, that can link and control any kind of drone or robot, armed or unarmed. If the military adopts it, dronemakers like Northrop Grumman and Boeing would have to licence Paez’s software so their unmanned systems could be plugged into the military’s.

“We’ve been working with the government for the past three years on this,” says Paez, a tall Californian who sports wraparound sunglasses and a dark suit. “When I first told Defense officials about Ballista, they stood up and said, ‘That’s what we’ve been waiting for for years.’”

Ballista’s system is so simple it can be run from a tablet. The software interfaces with a drone via an application programming interface, a.k.a. API. Each drone’s unique software codes, operational hardware protocols and data transmissions flow into Ballista’s central command system to be translated and displayed in a video game-like user interface. The system streams thermal imaging information from cameras, geolocating data and flying controls for surveillance drones—and serves as a trigger for armed ones. Drones that can’t now be networked could then communicate with one another.

Now 38, Paez spent the late 1990s doing IT security work for the Defense Logistics Agency. He co-founded DreamHammer in 2000 to provide identity management systems and IT security to companies like Country Financial, Pfizer and Best Buy. Today it’s a 75-person shop out of Santa Monica, California, Honolulu and Arlington, Virginia, doing only government work. It has a current backlog of $23 million in US contracts and netted 15 percent on revenue of $6.9 million last year.

In 2008, with talk of in-sourcing jobs and military budget cuts, Paez pondered new opportunities. He asked Pentagon contacts about their biggest challenges—and responded with an open architecture for robot operations.

Into Ballista went a total $2.5 million of reinvested profits, $1 million from angel investors—and the brainpower of engineers recruited from the likes of Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics.

Now in beta, Ballista is being tested by military labs paying $1.5 million to do so. DreamHammer plans to release the product in 2013. Paez is seeking $20 million in funding for the next phase: Commercial applications. Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to allow for private drones in the national airspace by 2015. That puts companies like FedEx and UPS on DreamHammer’s radar.

(This story appears in the 22 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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