April 15, 2024

Eric Schmidt’s secret ‘White Stork’ project aims to build AI combat drones

The former Google CEO has been quietly working on a military startup called White Stork with plans to design “kamikaze” attack drones.

By Sarah EmersonForbes staff and Richard NievaForbes Staff

bBillionaire technologist Eric Schmidt has been quietly building a new drone startup in the United States and Ukraine within a set of LLCs that have helped hide his operations and his team members. Forbes He first reported on the project’s existence this month and has since learned that it is called the White Stork, a reference to the national bird and sacred totem of Ukraine, where Schmidt took on the role of defense technology advisor and financier.

White Stork was formally established last August, according to corporate incorporation records and two sources with knowledge of the startup. The company has been developing a mass-produced drone that uses artificial intelligence for visual targeting and can operate in communication-free environments created by GPS interference.

Although it has not emerged from stealth, White Stork has become an open secret in the drone community, six people familiar with its activities said. Forbes. In Ukraine, Schmidt has toured factories and proving grounds and contacted many other startups in his capacity as a prolific investor in military technology, three of these people said.

Delaware business documents show White Stork previously operated as an LLC called Swift Beat Holdings, but changed its name to White Stork Group LLC last September. A Swift Beat holding company called Volya Robotics OÜ identifies the former Google CEO as its sole beneficial owner.

Meanwhile, business documents show that Volya Robotics OÜ was incorporated in Estonia last December and list a legal director from Schmidt’s family office, Hillspire, as a board member; Estonia is a popular incorporation vehicle for Ukrainian companies. Forbes For the first time he reports here on the names related to Schmidt’s drone project. Schmidt could not be reached for comment through a spokesperson.

In January, Swift Beat registered the website aurelianindustries.us, according to Internet domain data. The email address affiliated with the site is support@whitestork.com. It includes the phone number of a Hillspire IT manager as contact information, and the address provided for Swift Beat matches that of the Schmidt Family Foundation, a private grant organization run by Eric and Wendy Schmidt. Forbes could not determine the nature of Aurelian Industries, which shares its name with a Delaware LLC formed this month but appears to be affiliated with the drone project.

None of these entities have been released publicly. Aurelian Industries’ website remains depopulated, for example, and the name White Stork is currently used by an apparently unrelated American charity that provides first aid to Ukrainian fighters.

Do you have information about Eric Schmidt or a defense startup that the public should know about? Contact Sarah Emerson on Signal at 510-473-8820 or email semerson@forbes.com. Contact Rich Nieva on Signal at 510-589-4118 or email richardnieva@protonmail.com.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Schmidt has been a strong advocate of drones as a means to combat the Kremlin’s forces, which far outnumber those of Ukraine. “Perhaps the most important is the kamikaze drone,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion article last July. Also known as “suicide drones,” these cheap aircraft can loiter on the battlefield before being dispatched to disable or destroy their targets. “In the hands of an expert operator with several months of training, these drones fly so fast that it is almost impossible to shoot them down,” he added.

He highlighted this argument again in an op-ed for External relationships on Monday, stating that “Russia’s superior electronic warfare capabilities allow it to jam and spoof signals between Ukrainian drones and their pilots. “If Ukraine wants to neutralize Russian drones, its forces will need the same capabilities.” So far, most of the weaponry supplied by the Western allies, she wrote, has “fared poorly” against such tactics.

What Schmidt did not reveal in these op-eds were his own efforts to address this need with White Stork.

Schmidt has met with Ukraine’s top leaders several times since Russia first invaded the country. Last summer, he and a group attended a meeting in kyiv with the country’s wartime strategic industries minister, Oleksandr Kamyshin, and first deputy prime minister Yulia Svyrydenko. Also present were Sebastian Thrun, White Stork advisor and Schmidt’s former colleague at Google; Mark Stonich, former vice president of supply chain at Google; and Damon Vander Lind, a key engineer at Kitty Hawk, Thrun’s now-defunct air taxi startup. It’s unclear what the meeting was about, or whether it concerned the new project, but Svyrydenko recalled it on X, the platform once known as Twitter, after it concluded. “Ukraine is committed to developing new technologies and improvements in this area.” she wrote. “We are happy that our partners support our goals.”

Kamyshin, Svyrydenko, Thrun, Stonich and Vander Lind had not responded to a request for comment at the time of this publication.

Even before leaving his position as president of Google in 2017, Schmidt had dedicated a lot of time to US national security efforts. Between 2018 and 2021 he chaired the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, where he advised Congress on AI for military use. And from 2016 to 2020, he led the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory group aimed at bringing new technology to the Pentagon, including data science and machine learning efforts.

But when it comes to the military ecosystem in Ukraine, Schmidt is a relative newcomer. Last year, the billionaire invested millions of dollars in a Ukrainian startup accelerator called D3, or Dare to Defend Democracy, which provides $125,000 in seed funding to the country’s defense technology companies. Will Roper, former U.S. Air Force acquisition chief and founder of Istari Digital, an artificial intelligence-based weapons simulator backed by Schmidt, also attended the meeting with Ukrainian government officials last summer. Roper had not responded to a request for comment at the time of this publication.

A month later, Roper and Schmidt co-authored a Time opinion article with his advice for kyiv. “To succeed,” they wrote, “Ukraine must win the ‘startup war’ that constantly brings new systems and new software to the battlefield.”

Thomas Brewster and David Jeans contributed reporting.


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