Several years ago, Isaac Burton and Willem Bohrer helped establish the Two Harbors High School Rock Solid robotics team. Their experiences as part of that team eventually led them to seek degrees in the technology field at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
Now, the Two Harbors graduates, who have founded their own company, are looking to build a military drone invulnerable to attacks by enemy hackers.
Unmanned aircraft have become increasingly common on the battlefield in recent years, conducting surveillance and infiltration missions without risking human lives, but many of those drones are vulnerable to attack because of parts purchased from foreign countries, such as China, whose interests don't always align with those of the U.S.
"The problem with the drones they were finding with the army and, military in general, was that China was trying to spy on military operations or trying to get some kind of information from these drones," Bohrer said. "A lot of drones are actually manufactured in China currently, so we need to look for allies and U.S.-built drones."
Burton, Bohrer and fellow NDSU students Nicholas Snell and Jacob England recently founded the Fargo Drone Co. with the goal of developing a "naked drone" that is invulnerable to hacking, with all of its parts coming from sources vetted by the company. As a result of sourcing parts and software from a "known supply chain," military and law enforcement officials won't need to worry that information they're receiving from drone surveillance isn't ending up in the hands of hostile foreign governments, or even terrorists themselves.
"Part of that is we want to make sure that all the components are from trusted manufacturers," Burton said. "So one thing we are doing is checking all the hardware and the software as well to make sure it's not from anyone with malicious intent."
One of the reasons many electronics, like iPhones and gaming consoles, are manufactured in China is significantly cheaper costs for the companies selling the products in U.S. markets. However, with the rapidly advancing technology associated with drone warfare and surveillance, that's not always true for drone manufacturers.
"They're not necessarily more expensive," Burton said. "A lot of these specialty parts, they're just as cheap to develop here. It's just that there are very few manufacturers in the U.S."
Burton transferred to NDSU from Iron Range Engineering in Virginia last year to study computer engineering. He quickly found himself engaged by cyber attack prevention, and even joined the school's National Cyber League team, which competes in real-world scenarios to prevent and contain hacking attempts.
Bohrer, in his second year at NDSU, is studying computer science. He is still helping constuct robots and drones, like at Two Harbors High School, but this time, the devices he's building can fly and even operate underwater. Bohrer also coaches a Lego Robotics team at an elementary school and serves as a robot inspector for a local robotics competition.
The Fargo Drone Co. owners hope that by using parts sourced from trusted companies, often located in the U.S., or by fabricating those parts on a 3D printer, they can build a better drone that is impervious to enemy hacks and make the battlefield safer for U.S. soldiers.
"We were just taking all of our combined experience with robotics, starting at Two Harbors on the robotics team there, and then going to NDSU strengthened it," Bohrer said. "We thought there was no time better than now to use that experience to start our first business venture."