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a16z-backed ZeroMark wants to give soldiers guns that don’t miss against drones

Modern warfare is dominated by many thousands of ultra-cheap, ultra-fast drones that conduct robotic “suicide” missions to deliver explosives to enemy territory. Private companies have scrambled to develop tech to counter these unmanned aerial systems, but these solutions often aren’t sufficient, leaving the rifled soldier trying to hit these targets with their naked eye. 

ZeroMark wants to give those soldiers something better: a system that can be attached to nearly any infantry rifle in around 30 seconds, and that boosts the shooter’s probability of taking out those drones. 

The product, which ZeroMark calls a “fire control system,” has two components: a small computer that has sensors, like lidar and electro-optical, and a motorized buttstock. The startup’s CEO, Joel Anderson, said in a recent interview that the system makes hitting a small drone at 200 yards as easy as hitting a 60-foot-diameter circle — something nearly anyone could do.

The system is subtle: It uses machine vision to predict things like where the drone is going and conducts ballistic calculations in order to refine shots by even just a few degrees to ensure they hit their mark. 

“[The mechanized buttstock] doesn’t move the soldier’s arm, it creates a virtual pivot between shoulder pad and handheld positions that creates angular change of the bore axis (ultimately where the gun’s pointed),” Anderson explained. “The control systems for it are modeled to compensate for all the human factors (proprioception, noise, movement, torque, etc.) as well as the drone’s movement. So if you point in the general direction of the drone such that you’d be in the vicinity of a drone, the system does the rest.” 

Anderson, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy fresh out of high school, eventually joined private industry and ended up as MongoDB’s first CISO and CIO. He says he realized there was an opportunity to increase the capabilities of the dismounted soldier after driving his Full Self-Driving-enabled Tesla to a shooting range and realizing there was no analogous automation for marksmanship like there is for driving. 

“It was insane to me that I’ve never seen as much technology as in a simple consumer car as I ever saw with the Navy or across the DOD, especially for dismounted soldiers,” he said. “I realized there’s this big opportunity for technology for soldiers to help give them an advantage that just doesn’t exist.” 

He created a prototype of the fire control system and showed it to Katherine Boyle and David Ulevitch, both partners in Andreessen Horowitz’s American Dynamism fund. They wanted to see more, and in September 2022, Anderson formally took the leap and founded ZeroMark.

ZeroMark’s tech is more than a little terrifying; it sounds like something straight out of “Iron Man,” but in the real world, there are real concerns about systems falling into the wrong hands. The startup is squarely focused on countering offensive drones, but one could imagine this technology adapted to more accurately hit any target — like a person.

Anderson acknowledged that the idea of a “gun that never misses is controversial,” and the company stepped back from pursuing sales to domestic police forces because, as he put it, “I don’t think the world is ready for that, nor am I for that matter. I don’t want police to have AI weapons.” The company, understanding the current asymmetry in war fighting, pivoted to drones instead. 

He added that the company has developed robust licensing, remote activation and fleet management features to manage the use of the systems. 

Some devices are already in the field, mostly with private security companies that provide protection for assets like large boats. (Pirates are known to use drones to intimidate crew and force boarding.) The company is also in talks to export the devices to Ukraine and in conversation with the U.S. Department of Defense; of these latter conversations, Anderson said they’re hoping to move ahead with smaller-scale testing and evaluation as a stepping stone to a larger procurement. 

The soldier-focused solution has caught the attention of major VCs who no longer shy away from defense tech startups. Earlier this week, ZeroMark announced it had closed a $7 million seed funding round led by U.S.- and Israel-based Ground Up Ventures and a16z. That capital will go toward headcount (the team currently sits at seven) and research and development. 

New York City-based ZeroMark isn’t looking to stop at the auto-aiming system. As Anderson put it, he doesn’t want to be the next general defense prime but instead the “prime that dominates anything soldier system, anything force protection.” There are also additional platforms that the same software can be used for, like camera systems that discern what a drone does, who owns it or whether it’s carrying a payload.

On a longer timeline, one could imagine ZeroMark’s software integrated in head-up displays or an audible interface to provide the soldier with more information in real time. 

“Large systems like aircraft carriers, they don’t win wars,” said Anderson. “They help us protect power but they don’t capture Saddam Husseins, they don’t kill Osama Bin Ladens, they don’t bring home hostages, they don’t win wars. People do … and I want them to be as untouchable as an F-22 Raptor is in the sky,” he said. 

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