Laborious Iranians

Photo by Kayvan Mazhar via Unsplash

Laboring in the Persian Gulf

Have a fantastic Labor Day holiday for those in the States — we’re all looking forward to the deluge of autumn startup fundraising beginning in T-2 days.

Meanwhile, one of Lux’s portfolio companies got national attention this week as our themes of science, technology and geopolitics collided in one of the most challenging strategic environments in the world.

Saildrone manufacturers autonomous ocean surface vehicles that are designed to collect sensor data for extended periods of time. Its drones have been popular for tracking hurricanes, where they can follow storms across the Atlantic, and they are increasingly being used on ISTAR missions, defense-speak for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.

This week, a ship operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stopped a U.S. naval Saildrone that was operating in the Persian Gulf.

Tweet of a picture of the Iranians targeting a Saildrone autonomous ship.
Tweet of a picture of the Iranians targeting a Saildrone autonomous ship.

As the Wall Street Journal reported on the incident:

No shots were fired by either side, the defense officials added, and the Americans didn’t try to prevent the Iranian ship, which was operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, from leaving. Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of the U.S. naval forces in the region, said the Iranian actions, which took place in international waters, were “flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”

Dion Nissenbaum followed up the news with a deeper dive on Saildrone and others, asking why the Navy is increasingly moving toward an autonomous model for ISTAR missions:

By next summer, the Navy said, it expects to have 100 small surveillance drones—contributed by various countries—operating from the Suez Canal in Egypt to waters off the Iranian coast and feeding information to a command center in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. “I think we are truly on the cusp of an unmanned technological revolution,” said Capt. Michael Brasseur, who heads the U.S. Navy task force working to build the drone fleet in the Middle East. The drone initiative, now in its sixth month, is part of a burgeoning cooperative relationship among the U.S., Israel and Gulf nations following the Abraham Accords. It mirrors another U.S.-led effort to unite Israel and its Gulf neighbors to create a regional air-defense network.

We’ve previously covered the Navy’s penchant for massive expenditures on programs like its next generation of Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers in “Defense Fordism.” As I wrote then:

The multi-decade commitments that advanced warfighting platforms like the Gerald R. Ford require are slamming straight into the Moore’s Law of autonomous machines. The Ford’s construction was underway prior to the introduction of the iPhone, and it’s still not in service because experimental Chinese weapons like supersonic missiles will likely prove effective in neutering it (an exercise that Beijing has already made a clear priority).

Thankfully, there is increasingly a new logic across the American defense world that these massive platforms need to be complemented by autonomous technologies that are both cheaper to buy and cheaper to operate. That optionality gives mission commanders strategic flexibility in how they approach all aspects of their operations. It’s a lot of labor to make such a massive technological shift, but it’s necessary labor.

Hard Sciences x Tech in LA

Few cities are as brimming with entrepreneurial potential as LA. The City of Angels’ focus on the stars has shifted from Hollywood to space, as a new generation of defense and precision manufacturing startups rebuild the American industrial base and bring innovative new technologies to domains that were once the exclusive province of governments. Lux has quite the base in the region including companies like Anduril, Varda Space, Impulse Space, Epsilon3 among a litany of others.

So it was delightful to bring the whole community together two weeks ago for LA Tech Week in an event we dubbed La-La-Launch. Dozens of founders across the hard sciences came together, and we got to hear from Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space, as well as Tom Mueller, co-founder and CEO of Impulse Space and a founding employee of SpaceX.

Lux Recommends

  • While we are on the subject of drones, I recommend this deep dive by Laura Pitel and Raya Jalabi on Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has become a hero in fighting against Russia in its war on Ukraine. “In addition to heralding Turkey’s ascendancy in global defence, the TB2 embodies a new phase in the era of drone warfare in which lower-cost technology becomes increasingly accessible to regimes that cannot buy from the world’s more-established arms producers.”
  • Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman recommends Kai McNamee’s story in NPR about the search for alien technology on Earth. “Eight years ago, a meteor believed to have been 2 feet long entered Earth’s atmosphere at more than 100,000 miles an hour before exploding into tiny, hot fragments and falling into the South Pacific Ocean. Some scientists believe it came from another star system, which would make it the first known interstellar object of its size to impact Earth.”
  • Jason Collins wrote a compelling essay in Works in Progress arguing that “We don’t have a hundred biases, we have the wrong model”. Behavioral psychology and economics have gotten a lot of popular traction in recent years through concepts like loss aversion and prospect theory. But rather than continuing to find biases in human decision-making, Collins argues it’s time to move on to a whole new paradigm for understanding human rationality.
  • Sam recommends new research in Science that finds a neural pathway connecting certain types of audio to pain relief. “Our study reveals the corticothalamic circuits underlying sound-promoted analgesia by deciphering the role of the auditory system in pain processing.”
  • Finally, if you are looking for a nice beach read this weekend, I recommend the final report of the UN Human Rights Office on Xinjiang (XUAR), which finds that “Serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies. The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.”

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.