More than a hundred engineers in a newly opened Atlanta facility are designing, coding and building cutting-edge drones to do dangerous tasks, from tracking hurricanes to flying into active war zones.

That’s the work military defense contractor Anduril Industries is doing at its Atlanta office and production center, which opened in early March. Its 220 employees specialize in artificial intelligence and unmanned vehicles, developing automated security and defense technologies all under one roof.

Matthew Steckman, chief revenue officer for the California-based startup, said the new facility along Hills Place and Collier Road is designed to attract Atlanta’s graduates.

“The battle for tech talent is real. It’s tough,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We cannot graduate enough engineers, so every company is fighting for the same humans.”

Steckman credited the competition for high-skill talent for Anduril’s $60 million investment in west Atlanta, which is expected to eventually employ more than 500 workers. It also joins Georgia’s flourishing aerospace sector, the state’s second-largest manufacturing industry and the state’s top export.

Steckman said Anduril aims to become one of the country’s largest defense contractors by focusing on artificial intelligence and military software.

“We have to scale smartly,” he said. “As more government contracts come in, we add more people.”

‘To nerd out’

Anduril doesn’t hide its influences or who it tries to attract as workers.

The 6-year-old company got its name from a sword in the “Lord of the Rings” series. A whiteboard in its prototype design area asked Atlanta employees to vote on their favorite video game system, from new hardware to a nearly half-century-old Atari. One of the company’s drone launching methods is called “YEET,” referencing slang coined on social media and internet memes.

“To nerd out for a second,” was a phrase Steckman used multiple times when describing the complex systems and technologies. He said moving to Atlanta’s Upper Westside made sense to capitalize on the city’s tech sector.

Most of the company’s Atlanta employees previously worked in Marietta for Area-I, an unmanned aircraft system manufacturer that had been active in Georgia for more than a decade. Anduril acquired Area-I in 2021 for an undisclosed price.

Most of Anduril’s employees met the criteria for quality job tax credits, meaning they make at least 10% more than the average wage in Fulton County. Anduril received roughly $4.2 million in state incentives to come to Atlanta, mostly consisting of job tax credits and qualified machinery installations, according to documents obtained by the AJC through the Georgia Open Records Act.

Anduril expects to manufacture roughly 500 drones in Atlanta this year and has the capabilities to increase that production tenfold, Steckman said. Anduril’s technologies include its Altius line of drones, its Dive brand of unmanned underwater vehicles and its autonomous sentries that combine sonar, thermal sensors and optical cameras to survey areas.

Anduril also produces multiple types of reusable drone launchers called “PILS,” which Josh Steele, head of Atlanta operations, said was effectively a “militarized potato gun.”

Steckman said many of the company’s technologies aim to replace tedious work done by military personnel, including surveying locations and monitoring security perimeters.

“It never falls asleep. It never blinks. It never gets hungry. It never takes a bathroom break,” he said. “It just sits there, watching.”

Ukraine and hurricanes

Anduril’s innovations aren’t the only reason the startup has made headlines.

The company’s founder is Palmer Luckey, who sold his last startup, Oculus VR, to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. The 30-year-old tech industrialist is well-known for being fired by Facebook in 2017 over his fervent support of then-President Donald Trump.

Anduril raised billions in funding, including backing from venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

Steckman said the company’s first years received tepid backing from investors in comparison to today, as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has kept national defense in the spotlight.

“Ukraine was a big moment for everybody, where the world realized yet again that there were bad actors in the community,” he said. “The United States’ ability to project power suddenly became incredibly important again.”

Steele said the Atlanta facility is getting ready to ship its first drones to Ukraine. Luckey, whose Twitter profile image features himself with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, previously confirmed his hardware and software is being used in Ukraine.

The company’s Altius drones have the capability to fly a 35-pound payload for more than an hour before striking a target. Steckman said the distance allows drones to carry out certain missions without putting military personnel at risk.

Some of the company’s drones are used to tackle other dangerous forces — hurricanes.

The company’s drones were used to monitor Hurricane Ian, which caused devastating damage throughout Florida, coastal Georgia and the Carolinas in September.

He said the fact that Anduril’s technologies can go from design ideas to being used in action within quick timespans is another recruitment tool for ambitious engineers.

“That’s exciting for engineers,” he said. “Not only do I build this thing in a lab, but somebody’s actually going to use it.”