Celebrities, the rich and powerful, football stadiums and airports have something in common: They’re potential customers of Boise’s Black Sage Technologies.
Black Sage makes drone-detection and tracking technology — and found a deceptively simple way to blind a drone so it cannot take photos or video.
The business began about a year and a half ago and is co-owned by tech entrepreneurs Dave Romero and Ross Lamm. The two men were introduced by a mutual friend a few years ago and soon worked on a project that combined their expertise.
Lamm had developed long-range video tools to track wayward aircraft over Washington, D.C., and boats on the horizon for naval surveillance. But he realized his tools could be applied another way: tracking deer and other animals as they wandered onto a two-lane road in the middle of a forest.
Romero had experience in developing artificial intelligence, and he knew how to build algorithms that tell a computer, “That’s a deer you see, not a branch falling or a squirrel crossing the road.”
Using motion detectors made by a Utah company, they helped to build a system to detect animals on the roadway and alert drivers with flashing lights. McCall Studios, of Garden City, helped build mobile towers that Black Sage used to generate solar power and transmit data for the system.
Lamm and Romero soon realized the products could be used in countless ways. They started Black Sage and began showcasing its work.
One of their first test runs was at the Boise Airport. Airports tend to have strict ‘front-door’ security at the terminals, but fields and runways are secured by little more than chain-link fence and human eyes, Lamm says.
“We built a system, and we rolled it out to the back of the airport — they didn’t have to trench in power, they didn’t have to bring in an Internet connection — and, boom, within 30 minutes we had a security and surveillance system up and running, securing a mile’s worth of fence line and feeding video and radar information back to their control center,” Lamm says.
I told them, ‘Sometime in the next 10 days I’m going to jump the fence.’ ... They called me ... as I was climbing the fence and said, ‘Good job, now go back.’
Ross Lamm, co-owner of Black Sage, on a demonstration at the Boise Airport
Last summer, as concerns grew about drones’ impact on airspace safety and privacy, Lamm and Romero thought they had a potential blockbuster.
“We knew immediately that this technology could be applied in some industries where there are almost no alternatives, and that is how we ended up applying this to UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] detection,” Romero says.
Together, they built a mobile system that monitors the air for objects that behave and look like drones. When a drone pops up in the radar, the software created by Black Sage sends a signal to the camera to keep its eye on the drone. The camera can zoom in — to check for a dangerous payload, for example — and monitor the drone as it leaves, following it back to its pilot.
Lamm and Romero then realized that by using a strong beam of light, their machine could track the drone visually even farther than a camera can. As a surprise bonus, they realized the bright light would blind the drone — spoiling the mission of any paparazzi, spy or worse.
They demonstrated the technology at Albertsons Stadium, detecting a drone as it flew in during the first game of the season.
Lamm says the system is drawing attention from car manufacturers seeking to keep competitors or media organizations from shooting video of cars before they have been publicly unveiled. It is also drawing attention from film studios that want to protect their sets from prying eyes.
A major national park, plagued by drones flying too close to its main attraction, has expressed interest, Lamm says, declining to say which one.
The company is growing steadily, he says, though he declined to disclose revenues. There are four employees including Lamm and Romero, and much of their work is done through contractors.
Romero, who founded and still runs a Boise data-visualization software company called Tsuvo, now works full-time on Black Sage. Lamm runs a separate, unrelated tech business in addition to working on Black Sage.
The company recently was awarded money from the Idaho Department of Commerce to travel to a large technology conference in Germany this spring.
The owners decline to say who makes up Black Sage’s client base. The say they’re selling a tool meant to protect against intrusion or invasion of privacy and cannot tell the world all about a client’s security system.
But they offer some hints.
Romero just returned from a weeks-long trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he showed the system to a potential client. “It’s military. It’s top secret,” he says.
He says the business is working with Dynamiq, an Australian security-integration and emergency-management company that would install Black Sage products as part of a security system for that client.
Romero says Black Sage has worked with, or demonstrated, its product to military customers “in several other countries” and “for several high-profile people that have a large security department, that are solely responsible for protecting these people.”
Black Sage does not approach those customers, he says. They come to Black Sage in search of a solution — one that’s more affordable than other systems on the market, with Black Sage setups running anywhere from $60,000 to more than $100,000.
The next trip will be to California, to demonstrate how Black Sage technology would work on “a very secure residential property,” Romero says. The project, which Romero says falls within the “executive protection” market, is for “a high-profile publicly traded company CEO.”
What’s in the name
The name Black Sage Technologies is a mish-mash of meaning.
“We are inspired by the tough Western plant, black sage, and its unique ability to grow in our high mountain deserts,” the company’s website says.
There are other meanings, though.
“We independently have worked for years in ‘black’ — meaning secret or unknown — technologies,” says co-owner Ross Lamm. “And sage meaning ‘wise.’”