Athena AI: artificial intelligence is arriving in military drones

Artificial intelligence is one of the hottest trends in 2023. I caved last week when I gave you a story (well, song lyrics) written by AI chatbot ChatGPT. That was a cheeky use of artificial intelligence but many other forms of it are a lot more serious. That includes Athena AI — an artificial intelligence tech that is finding its way into drones.

Australia-based, AI-enabled military decision-support company Athena AI made its first export sale to the U.S. Department of Defense in January 2023 by way of Florida-based Tomahawk Robotics. And just a couple months later, its next biggest step is into drones.

Athena AI in March announced a partnership with Puerto Rico-based Red Cat. Red Cat, which owns military drone company Teal Robotics, will integrate Athena’s machine learning and AI for high-speed tracking of objects through its Teal 2 drone. The Teal 2 drone is especially notable for its abilities to conduct successful nighttime operations (perhaps most notable, the Teal 2 is the first drone to be equipped with FLIR’s new Hadron 640R sensor, which is optimized for nighttime operations).

And with the new Athena-Red Cat partnership, Athena AI will license its proprietary computer vision architecture to Teal.

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Athena AI’s computer vision architecture, which will be integrated in the new Teal 2 military drone, can detect people and weapons at night. Photo courtesy of Teal.

How the Teal 2 drone will use Athena AI

The company’s primary product, the Teal 2, is a military-focused drone, and the addition of Athena AI could give it the power to make smarter and faster decisions. The tech will in theory allow for high-speed tracking of objects and, at slower speeds, in-depth data exploitation. It aligns well with the nighttime focus of Teal 2, as Athena’s product is also capable of identifying objects in near-darkness including weapons and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) markers, such as Cyalume HALOs and IR beacons. That’s important given that most military operations happen at night.

“Athena has spent more than three years curating and analyzing military night-fighting footage, including thermal and low light camera systems, to create computer vision architecture for warfighting after dark,” according to a statement from Red Cat.

Of note to military experts are other capabilities of Athena’s technology, such as:

  • Support for Danger Close Fire Missions at night
  • Deteching, recognizing and geolocating Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT) in comparison with the enemy
  • Precise and safe fires on the target
  • Rapid in-field target-set updates (with a turnaround as short as 72 hours for new target-detection algorithms)

Red Cat owns Utah-based Teal, which started as an consumer drone company that has since pivoted into the military drone market. Red Cat is in a unique place where it also owns a range of other drone companies including FPV brands Fat Shark and Rotor Riot, but it is also increasingly positioning itself as a military technology company.

“The Teal 2 is a mission-focused military drone, and our partnership with Athena enables us to integrate the very latest computer vision technology,” said Red Cat CEO Jeff Thompson. “In military operations, every second counts, and Athena’s ability to track objects at night means our drone can deliver crucial intel to warfighters and commanders, providing rapid decision-making support.”

Athena AI IFF Cyalume HALO
Athena’s solution can detect Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) markers, such as Cyalume HALOs. Photo courtesy of Teal.

What is Athena AI?

Artificial intelligence is a broad term. There’s the ChatGPT-style AI’s that write emails, essays and even song lyrics for you. Then there’s AI in the sense of things like facial recognition, mapping and text editors or autocorrect.

But as far as Athena AI goes, this is a vision-based AI system. It combines AI computer vision with AI-enabled decision support to tell robots what to do. It supports projects including satellite terrain computer vision analysis, thermal video computer vision and pose detection of humans. It’s primarily used by first responders and warfighters.

Of course with conversations around AI also comes conversations around ethics. Athena AI claims to be one of the only trusted AI products, and says it has with International Weapons Review, military legal officers and military ethicists to build an AI that makes legal decisions.

Athena AI is platform and feed agnostic, meaning it can network into any ISR feed or point cloud data service as part of a C2 architecture.

Athena AI is based in Murarrie, Queensland, Australia.

A history of Teal

Teal is a fascinating drone company for a few reasons: its founder, George Matus, was a sophomore in high school when the company was created (that was back in 2015). About two years later, then 18-year-old Matus launched his first product, the Teal drone, a modular device that promised to be everything — a camera drone, a racing drone, even an enterprise-grade drone.

Teal has since pivoted away from consumer drones. In 2019, Teal became one of six companies awarded a collective $11 million to design and build drones that meet Army requirements. In 2020 it launched the Teal Golden Eagle, a $14,800 commercial drone platform designed for aerial surveillance.

The Teal Golden Eagle drone is one of (what is to-date) less than 20 drones on the Department of Defenses’ Defense Innovation Unit Blue UAS Cleared List. That means the drone has been vetted through the DoD’s On Ramp process. It’s also Section 848 FY20 NDAA compliant, meaning federal agencies are able to use it. The U.S.’s NDAA Section 848 prohibits federal departments and agencies from procuring any foreign commercial off-the-shelf drone or covered unmanned aircraft system (that’s as opposed to something like Chinese-made DJI drones).

And the company has been rapidly growing. In fact, Teal’s products are used by other major drone players including Autonodyne, Dronelink and Skyward. It’s even used by the aforementioned Tomahawk Robotics, which already has its own partnership with Athena AI.

Teal 2 also recently scored an order by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for 54 units.

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