The 25-year-old VR pioneer Palmer Luckey is back from exile, following his exit from Facebook after funding a right-wing meme organization. He’s now launched a defense contractor that merges consumer technology and AI. Its first major project: A virtual border wall between the United States and Mexico, Wired reports.
The new startup, named Anduril after a legendary sword in the Lord of the Rings and staffed with former Palantir execs— another company named after a J. R. R. Tolkien reference—is running a test with the San Diego office of Customs and Border Protection in California, according to Wired. It’s already led to ten border interceptions in the first twelve days of the pilot, and 55 more arrests during a separate 10-week test run in Texas near the Mexico-US border.
Anduril hasn’t introduced cutting-edge sensors or some other novel technology, but rather, it’s cobbled together different consumer technologies into a national-security product. The “wall” is made of a smattering of cameras and sensors on 30-foot poles, each placed 2 miles apart. Anduril used publicly available data to train AI to tell the difference between a human and a tumbleweed, Wired’s Steven Levy writes, and hacked a laser meant for a cosmetic hair-removal device into a long-range object detection camera. And those operating the system are sent alerts through an iPhone app.
Other defense contractors had quoted the US federal government more than $7.5 billion for similar projects, like Boeing’s failed attempt at a digital wall. A “smart wall” like Anduril’s costs around $500,000 per mile, according to Texas congressman Will Hurd in Wired. Rough math would suggest that the project comes in a hair under $1 billion for the entire 1,954 miles of the border, though it would likely be cheaper for the government, since Anduril plans to own the infrastructure and charge the US annually for its use. However, it’s unclear whether Luckey’s digital wall would ever pass the Trump administration’s requests for a border wall, which requires a physical wall that could withstand a sledgehammer.
A border wall is only Anduril’s first venture, though. The company is also reportedly looking into drone swarms, and is currently building an autonomous fire-fighting tank with the co-host of Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman, according to Wired.