Drone developers show off latest technology for SOCom at Ybor City 'rodeo'

An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. [U.S. Air Force]
An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. [U.S. Air Force]
Published Nov. 1, 2017

TAMPA — With a hum like a thousand bees, the small Hive Mind Nova quadcopter lifted off for a mision seen as one of the most dangerous combat troops and law enforcement officers can undertake.

Entering and clearing a building.

A team of humans can spend a half hour or so risking their lives on the task. But the Hive Mind Nova, made by Shield AI and equipped with artificial intelligence, wended its way through twists and turns in just a few minutes — avoiding objects, detecting human forms and the dead spaces where they can hide, even operating in the dark.

All by itself, and all while sending out full motion video and mapping the interior.

The event took place at a newly constructed "shoot house" inside the new 30,000 square foot Sofwerx center, once a church in Ybor City.

The demonstration by Hive Mind Nova, from a company created by former Navy SEAL Lt. Brandon Tseng, opened a three-day event called the ThunderDrone Prototype Rodeo.

The rodeo, which runs through Friday, features teams of drone innovators, like those from Shield AI, who will take part in more than 30 demonstrations of drone technology for officials from U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, spends billions each year on commando goods and services so innovators use the event to impress those with the checkbooks.

"All of this is very exciting," said John Coglianese, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who now runs the ThunderDrone project.

The idea, said James "Hondo" Geurts, head of SOCom acquisition, is to see what the innovators have to offer, match up the needs of the warfighter, and rapidly field the products.

The rodeo is the culminating event of the ThunderDrone Tech Expo that kicked off in September. But in addition to showing off capabilities like the Hive Mind Nova, or a crawling ground vehicle like the Ghost Robotics Minotaur, ThunderDrone has served as a way for companies to come together and develop new systems.

A collaboration between a company called Asylon, which developed an automated method of replacing drone batteries, and Endeavor Robotics, which makes ground robots, is an example of that, said David Viens, a retired Army Green Beret with Endeavor Robotics. The company spun off from the maker of the Roomba robot vacuum.

"We happened to be in a booth near Asylon and I wondered what they did," said Viens, a retired Army Green Beret.

The two companies who had never heard of each other before developed what might be a game-changing system. The Asylon product, which can essentially run flying drones around the clock by keeping them powered up, can deliver Endeavor Robotics' small ground robots to dangerous places.

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Said Guerts, "We are seeing a lot of potential for drones to help us do our mission in special ops, whether its providing surveillance for the teams, collecting information or providing force protection. But we also need to think about drones as a threat, because our adversaries use the same kinds of capabilities."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.