The 80,000 people who watched Garth Brooks in Boise in July may not have worried about a nefarious drone swooping down on the open-air stadium, but someone was looking out for them.
Not far away, Black Sage Technologies, a Boise-based developer of counter-unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), was testing its products’ ability to detect and track unauthorized drones and other intruders. One advantage of the office it moved into in January was its proximity to Albertsons Stadium, said Ross Lamm, co-founder and chief technology officer.
“We wanted to test our systems in an urban environment,” Lamm said. “Across from the stadium, along the river, is the perfect location.”
Lamm isn’t the only person worrying about stadium vulnerability. Black Sage recently sold an undisclosed share of itself to Acorn Growth Companies, an Oklahoma City-based equity group, to help the company expand.
Five years ago, Lamm co-founded the company in what was then – and still is – an emerging market. “We take great pride that we didn’t take any investment in all that time,” he said. “It forced us to have good customer relations so we could execute our strategy.”
But with potential growth showing the enviable “hockey stick” exponential increase pattern, it was time, Lamm said. “We needed a big brother with financial backing to execute on the business we see coming our way.”
Sarah Massie, senior international trade specialist for the Idaho Department of Commerce, said it was exciting to see Black Sage’s growth opportunities over the past few years.
“They have participated in several STEP grant supported international trade shows, one of which contributed to their receipt of an Export Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce in December,” she said.
At the July announcement, the company had about 25 employees, but within days, it was offering jobs to more, with the goal of reaching just under 30 soon, potentially doubling that over the next 18 months, Lamm said.
Black Sage considers itself an integrator, Lamm said. The company hires a Garden City vendor for machining and powdercoating, then brings products in-house for assembly.
The company uses a layered approach to countering unauthorized UAS. First is a radio frequency early-warning system. “It’s an antenna that listens for the right frequencies to see if a traditional drone is out there,” Lamm said.
But not all UAS use that same “language,” so devices also detect airborne items with radar, along with artificial intelligence. “It’s so we can disambiguate birds from drones,” Lamm explained. Products also include a camera to track UAS.
Finding the UAS is one thing, but then what? The company has several disabling techniques, though it is not allowed to use all of them in most non-military circumstances, Lamm said. First, the system uses Wi-Fi jammers to disrupt communication between the operator and the UAS. Typically, non-nefarious UAS then automatically go “home.”
“A nefarious actor can program the ‘auto home’ position to be a target location, like the stadium or the Capitol,” Lamm said.
In that case, the Black Sage devices also have Global Positioning System (GPS) jammers. “That would then cause it to be completely blind to all communications,” he said.
Tom Hagen, president emeritus and board member for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Cascade Chapter in Tacoma, noted that the counter-UAS market is rapidly growing to thwart nefarious intentions such as the drone landing on the White House lawn a few years ago.
“The huge numbers of UAS hitting the recreational and commercial markets (over 1,500,000 registered with the FAA) presents a big challenge for security providers, both civilian and military,” he said. “That drives investments like Acorn Growth’s and will, I believe, also drive consolidations in the counter-UAS market as large companies add counter-UAS to their technology portfolios.”