Anduril unveils jet-powered interceptor designed to down enemy drones, missiles

COSTA MESA, California—For the past two years, Anduril Industries has been secretly building what executives say is a first-of-a-kind, turbojet-powered craft that can down incoming drones or missiles, perform reconnaissance, and handle other missions.

Called Road Runner, the six-foot, delta-winged craft can take off and land vertically and fly autonomously. So is it a missile or a drone?

“We had this problem when we were figuring out how we’re going to market this thing,” Anduril founder Palmer Luckey said Thursday at the company’s headquarters here. “Is it a recoverable missile? Is it a reusable missile? Is it a loitering munition? Is it an armed UAS? It is something that’s never really quite existed before. It is a bit of a new category.”

Luckey and Chris Brose, the company’s chief strategy officer, said the Road Runner has been a U.S. government customer that they were not allowed to disclose. They also said the lethal version of Road Runner has been “operationally assessed,” but that they were prohibited from saying where or if it has been deployed. 

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to questions about whether it was using the drone.

Anduril believes the autonomous craft could help defend against drones, missiles, and even aircraft.

“You are not going to be able to counter a threat that is becoming larger and larger in a quantitative sense simply by throwing more people and more money at the problem,” Brose said. “We see a lot of air defense capability that requires huge amounts of manpower [and] huge amounts of manual labor to make systems integrate to make capabilities close. Our belief is, if you’re fighting large-scale systems, you have to be able to leverage autonomy to get after that problem.”

For years, the Pentagon has relied on interceptor missiles like the Patriot to defend against missiles or aircraft. But such weapons are expensive—especially compared to the cheap drones they’ve been used against in recent years.

“I think America needs to have as many Patriot missiles as we’re capable of building but it’s impractical to imagine fielding Patriot batteries to all of these sites that are now inside of that threat ring,” Brose said.

Pentagon officials have long lamented the high cost of countering adversaries’ inexpensive drones and missiles. Anduril executives said that Road Runner’s price tag is in the “low six figures” right now and would fall even lower when orders come rolling in. 

They believe the drone’s low cost compared to larger missile defense interceptors will make it a disruptor.

“I’m pretty sure that we’ve built the first recoverable weapon, which is pretty cool,” Brose said. “It fundamentally changes how operators can think about shot doctrine in the air defense fight.”

Road Runner was born from a napkin sketch about two years ago. Its explosive warhead could be replaced with an intelligence sensor that could take pictures of fast-moving enemy aircraft, ships, or even spot nascent wildfires before they spread. Luckey sees the Road Runner being used in a host of roles, from defending military bases to protecting critical infrastructure. 

A company video shows the half-drone, half-missile launching from a white box that resembles an oversized refrigerator or deep freezer. The so-called “nest” is climate-controlled and monitors the health of the Road Runner, Luckey said.

“It’s doing the job that typically would have required a team of aircraft maintainers in a hangar to do: keeping a jet aircraft ready to get off the ground very quickly,” he said. “It does that totally autonomously, for months at a time.”

Road Runner is powered by company-made jet engines, which are being used “in five different products,” Luckey said. When landing, the drone looks like a cape-wearing superhero slowly floating to the ground. 

The company is building the drones on a production line here and aims to make hundreds or more per year.

“There’s no reason that you can’t have 100,000 Road Runners just sitting around all over the world ready to do their thing with a very small number of people managing all of them,” Luckey said.

So how did the company settle on the name Road Runner

“One of the competitors is the Coyote block two,” Luckey said referring to the RTX-made counter-drone system. “We’re all competitors. We’re just having a little fun with each other.”

Founded in 2017, Anduril has introduced several tech-heavy products, including several anti-drone systems.

“I’m supposed to love all my children equally, but this one’s definitely my favorite,” Luckey said.

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Marcus Weisgerber