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Palmer Luckey's startup will build a 'virtual' border wall

A government contract calls for 200 surveillance towers by 2022.
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It's no secret that Palmer Luckey's Anduril Industries has been developing a "virtual wall" to heighten national security -- he's been at it for the better part of three years. That work (for better or worse) has finally paid off. According to a new report from the Washington Post, the Trump administration awarded Anduril a lucrative five-year contract to erect hundreds of AI-powered surveillance towers along the U.S.-Mexico border by 2022.

“These towers give agents in the field a significant leg up against the criminal networks that facilitate illegal cross-border activity,” said Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott in a statement released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Anduril's hardware almost looks like it belongs in orbit, rather than sitting amid desert scrub. On the ground, two wide solar panels collect energy to keep the surveillance tower running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And at the top of a lengthy mast sit a cluster of cameras, sensors and antennae designed to spot animals, vehicles and people as they traverse potentially rugged landscapes. Of course, that hardware is only part of the solution -- Anduril's Lattice AI collects the data from those myriad sensors, identifies the objects in motion, and feeds relevant information to its customers in government and law enforcement.

It's worth noting, however, that Anduril's AI has limits. Despite a bevy of sophisticated sensors, these towers can't be used for fine-grained personal data collection.

“We know at a distance whether it’s a person, it’s a cow, it’s a vehicle, it’s an aircraft, it’s a ship,” said Matthew Steckman, Anduril's Chief Revenue Officer, to the Post. “We don’t know anything below that level, but for border security, especially in rural locations, that’s enough to make a decision.”

While industry observers were surprised to see Palmer Luckey shift gears from consumer virtual reality to defense technology, what might have been more surprising was the speed at which the former Oculus chief found success in his new venture. He started Anduril Industries in 2017, mere months after being forced out of Facebook due to backlash from a $10,000 donation he made to a pro-Trump political group. Just over a year later, Anduril was on the ground on a ranch in Texas, testing a cluster of four Lattice-powered surveillance towers. During that ten-week people, Wired reported that the AI had helped customs agents apprehend 55 people who had crossed the border illegally. It wasn't long before U.S. Customs and Border Protection procured an additional 56 towers.

Now, just three years since launch, Anduril landed a government deal estimated the Post pegs at hundreds of millions of dollars. The startup didn't just get cash to grow from the federal government, either. The Trump administration's announcement comes on the heels of another major milestone for the startup: It just closed a $200 million Series C funding round, based largely on its promise of becoming a full-blown defense contractor. With today's announcement, Luckey and Anduril have made good on that promise.

Despite early successes in the field, though, it doesn't appear that the Trump administration's embrace of "virtual wall" technology has diminished its zeal for traditional, physical barriers. The president's border wall has grown by about 50 miles since the end of February, while much of the country grapples with upticks in COVID-19 infections and questions over re-opening.

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