Gregg Pugmire of Fortem Technologies at the Unmanned Security Expo in New York on November 15. Image: SD/CDR

Interview: Gregg Pugmire of Fortem Technologies


While attending the Unmanned Security Expo in New York, I stopped by the Fortem Technologies booth and met Gregg Pugmire, VP World Wide Sales at the firm founded in 2016 and funded by Boeing’s HorizonX and other investors.

Q: Here at Unmanned Security Expo with Gregg Pugmire of Fortem Technologies. Why don’t you tell us briefly about your product range, what Fortem does?

Gregg Pugmire: OK, so Fortem is a security company and we really do three things in that range. We build a radar sensor and we build that in two versions, a small one that is either ground-based or air-based, and a larger one that is ground-based. Then we take those sensors, put them together, and we have the software that does the sensor fusion that brings all of that information together and creates a total airspace awareness of what’s going on in the airspace above whatever it is that you care about. So think about security from the traditional security standpoint, as perimeter security. You have fences inside the perimeter. You have buildings, you have doors, you have access control. All of those things that you have is great, but it’s two-dimensional. Fences are not built to keep everybody out. You have to let people in that want to work inside the facility. So you let the people in that need to be in, you keep the people out that need to be out. Take that same concept now and you put the third dimension of that, and that is the airspace, so using our radar technology, we’re able to set up and monitor an airspace and allow you to create zones in the sky, curtains or fences in the sky just as you would on the ground, so that radar is very good at spatial awareness so we know where things are, not only in relation to the ground of east, west, north, south, but also add altitude to that. So now with that, we’re able to then start to make decisions upon what do you want to do in your airspace. So you can set up a zone of anything outside of the zone. We want to know that it’s there, but we don’t want to do anything. Anything that crosses this threshold or this zone or curtain, now we want to do something about it. And the third part of Fortem is we have the ability to do a mitigation. Our mitigation is we can autonomously launch a drone. We call that DroneHunter. It will go up in the sky, guided by Skydome, finds the rogue drone. Once it acquires that, then it is self-guided from that point, it chases the rogue drone. We’ll shoot a net, capture the drone and bring it back and give it to wherever you want it to be. So we believe that we’re really the only end-to end-solution, that all the technologies are our own. So we build the detection technology, which is our radars. We can integrate that with our software to give us this airspace awareness. We can then bring in other sensors to our Skydome software, so we could bring in RF [Radio Frequency] sensors, we could bring in optical, we could bring in acoustical, we can fusion any of those together. We don’t build the other pieces, but we can put all that together. So that would be where Fortem does that and then we build a mitigation. So our mitigation is a netting solution, but really the key to this is that we have the ability to detect something in your airspace, know that it’s there, know where it is, make decisions against that. And if needed, we can autonomously launch a drone. Nobody controlling the drone, making it fly and do what you need to do. It’s all autonomous. It goes up in the air and it does something. Our something is we shoot a net. Well we can do a lot of other somethings. We can go up and we can flash lights at it to let them know we know you’re there. We can go up and follow it. We can go up, we have other companies that build other effectors that we can put on our drone and go up and do lots of things. But again, it’s this end-to-end piece of detection, airspace awareness, mitigation. Long answer to a short question.

Q: OK. Now, about the DroneHunter, doesn’t US federal law prohibit interfering with flying craft or has that changed with the recent FAA reauthorization?

Gregg Pugmire: The FAA reauthorization did change that significantly, but that gave just the authorization to Homeland Security or whoever they designate to do that. And with many US laws, it’s quite vague in its wording of if it is a threat, well what is a threat? A threat to you might be something that’s a threat is different to me. So we don’t see a problem. Most of our customers don’t have a problem with with doing that if they do, then you know, we use these non-capture things like I talked about, we can go up and let the other drone know that we know that they’re there kind of a thing. We can follow it back and find the operator. If the operator launches inside of our Skydome sphere of coverage, we’re going to know where they are as well so we can send somebody out to talk to them. So there’s lots of different pieces to this. We don’t see this as a major — it certainly hasn’t been with our customers of, well we can’t do anything because we don’t want to break the law type of thing. The first two pieces of our three-pronged approach they can do anyway because there’s nothing in breaking the law of detecting what’s in your airspace. So that’s how to answer that question.

Q: Now, I’ve been told concerning drones that companies don’t know what they don’t know and in that light, your recent webcast, I found it very informative. How important is educating clients or prospects about potential threats?

Gregg Pugmire: That is a great question and that’s really, at these shows and many of the people I talked to, they want to go right to the mitigation. What are you going to do about this? And they generally pick the hardest mitigation right now, which is: what are you going do about a drone swarm? And my question to them is, how many drone swarms have you seen? How many single drones have you seen? Until you know the size of the problem, it’s hard to come up with a proper mitigation. So you’ve got to know, are you seeing one rogue drone a day, or are you seeing ten rogue drones a day? Then you can start to develop a mitigation. So our approach to customers in this environment is, let’s go out and deploy this even if it’s a temporary deployment for three months, for six months, and let’s get an airspace awareness. Now that’s starting to catch on. There is a country that has released an RFP [Request For Proposals] that we’re a part of responding to. We don’t know whether we’re going to win this or not, but they have seven major airports and they have said they want to do counter-drone, but they don’t know the size of the problem, so very wisely they’ve said for the next six months we’re going to pick a solution and we’re going to go out and spend two weeks at each one of these airports and then we may come back and do it again at some of them, but we’re going to spend six months gathering data and from that data then we can start to make the decision of what is our counter-drone or what’s the size of our drone problem and what’s our counter-drone solution. To me, that’s the right approach.

Q: Now, I’m referencing your webcast. There was an interesting slide in your presentation about threats to stadiums and earlier we were mentioning a novel from the 1970s called Black Sunday, which outlined a similar scenario with a hijacked blimp, and in particular the possibility of a stampede, of panic. What special precautions can event planners take when there are crowds?

Gregg Pugmire: So what they have to do is they have to know what is in their airspace and what’s going on. So let’s just go back to your story with the hijacking of the Goodyear blimp. What do you think the Goodyear blimp costs? It’s in the millions. It’s probably in the tens, is probably in the hundreds of millions. So again, a novel written in — what year did you say?

Q: Oh, I think it was ’77.

Gregg Pugmire: So a novel written in 1977 required, let’s say millions to tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to do this damage. Here’s the real key to that story is, that same damage can be done today with about $2,000. I go buy a drone for $1,500 or $1,000. I spend a thousand dollars to put some sort of an effector that makes a lot of noise, doesn’t have to do a lot of damage, fly it over a stadium and let that off and I get 70,000 people to want to leave the stadium at the same time. That’s exactly what happened last November in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara [California] with the [San Francisco] 49ers. A guy from Sacramento decided he was disgruntled with the government, got in his car, drove down from Sacramento to Santa Clara, it’s about a three hour drive, got out of his car in the parking lot, took out his drone, hooked leaflets to it, flew over the park and let the leaflets go. The NFL [National Football League] had absolutely no clue that he was there. He then got in his car and he was going to do the same things over another game in Oakland and they were aware that this was going on and they caught him. So he didn’t do that. But again, this is the real risk to this, of something that would have required millions of dollars before, so only a few select people could get it, or you had to hijack it, now anybody can go to their local box store and buy one of these and have the same sort of an effector for almost nothing. So the problem set has increased exponentially. What you have to do is, you have to know what’s in your airspace and you have to then decide, again — back to this, what’s the pattern of life? What is the normal behavior around this airspace? If we’re seeing two or three drones, and it’s a drone that’s meandering across during a game, probably not there to do a lot of damage. A drone that is a larger drone that can carry a bigger capacity that’s coming on a straight line, which is like a waypoint, directly for the stadium? Very different risk profile. So the Skydome software helps you not only know what’s in the airspace but helps you start to mitigate or know what the threat vector is of that particular object in your airspace. You’re never going to be able to read someone else’s mind, that’s never going to happen, but you have to start planning for what is the risk of all of these different scenarios and how do we play off against that? We’ve had people tell us, well, we have a drone in the sky, the last thing we want to do is put another drone in the sky and now I’ve just doubled my problem. Well, that’s true. If that first drone doesn’t want to do any damage, it’s just a, let’s call it a looky-loo — I don’t know if that word translates into French, but you probably have some beautiful French phrase for that, for looky-loo — but a drone that’s there to do you damage, you’re better off to go up and engage and try to do something before it gets there.

Q: Now I believe you’re in charge of international sales, is that right? What markets are priorities for you? Where do you see future development?

Gregg Pugmire: So we’re seeing, because of the regulations in the United States, and really I’m going to say Western countries including the EU, Britain, the United States, Canada, these countries have a lot of very stiff regulations. You’ve talked about that, what just got changed recently in the US. So that regulation in the US said that it was unlawful to do anything to disrupt the flight of anything in the air. Well, this regulation was written in the 1980s. The only thing that was in the air in the 1980s were manned objects, it made great sense. When you start, you know, everything that we’re seeing in this whole market, it’s very interesting to think about it. It all started from a toy manufacturer. The whole drone revolution started from a toy manufacturer. Everything that we’re talking about, it didn’t come from aerospace. It didn’t come from the automotive industry. It didn’t come from all that. It came from a toy manufacturer. Very different mentality. So now I have toys in the air that I’m trying to apply rules in the air that are made for passenger carrying vehicles. They just don’t apply. So in all, I’m going to call them Western countries, there’s a lot of regulations that have to be resolved in order for these things to happen. By the way, in the security sense that’s true, it’s also true for all of the drone commerce approach to it, which is another part of our same business, right? The same Skydome that is allowing airspace awareness to protect you can also be used to enable air commerce or drone commerce or the drone economy. So anybody that wants to move a drone package from A to B or wants to do an Uber Air from A to B is going to have to have some sort of airspace awareness of what’s going on in that airspace. It’s the same technology, whether I use it for security or whether you use it for commerce, it’s the same technology. So again, let me get to your question, what are we doing in the US versus other places? We’re finding that there are places in the world where there have been attacks on public facilities via drone. Those places in the world, predominantly the Middle East, are much more aware of the threat vector. In the US, it really took the attack on the Venezuelan president for us to wake up to that. The NBC Today show, you’ve seen their video, that’s why they came and did it, is because of that. They wanted to know what’s going on with this. There will be a — let’s knock wood, I’m not saying that I want it to be or that I’m hoping that it’ll be, I’m hoping that there never is — but in the world there will be other drone security incidents. And that awakening is what it’s going to take for some countries to decide they need to change their rules and regulations to do that. For a company of our size, we have a very large international presence because international places are sometimes more attuned to the risk and doing more about it right now then we are here in the United States, and let’s call it Western Europe.

Q: All right, Gregg Pugmire, thank you very much for taking the time with me.

Gregg Pugmire: Thank you, Sean. Very nice to be here with you and thank you for seeing us here at the show.