U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dylan Ferguson, a brigade aviation element officer with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, launches a Puma unmanned aerial vehicle June 25, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dylan Ferguson, a brigade aviation element officer with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, launches a Puma unmanned aerial vehicle June 25, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Sgt. Mike MacLeod / 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs

Intel Agency Worker Pushed His Own Drone Company, Report Details

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency inspector general found one of its employees accessed classified and proprietary data, trying to cheat competitors.

In 2014, the co-founder of an anti-drone technology company decided to leverage an unusual marketing asset: his employment at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. 

The employee obtained classified information, arranged access to lawmakers and other officials, and even entered his company, DroneShield, in government-sponsored drone competitions before his use of official credentials to boost his side hustle brought him down. It’s an interesting look into how the Pentagon’s rush to exploit rapidly advancing technology has opened windows for smart insiders to game the system. 

A 2014 report by the NGA inspector general, newly obtained by the nonprofit watchdog Government Accountability Project via a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with Defense One, provides a fascinating look into how one person used government credentials to obtain business contacts. The employee worked for NGA’s InnoVision Directorate, where he wrote program management reviews, according to the report. The employee’s name is redacted throughout the released version of the report, which nonetheless notes that the person gave “interviews in which he identified himself as the cofounder of DroneShield.”

A DroneShield prospectus document lists two co-founders. One is Brian Hearing, who was an employee of NGA from 2011 until 2015, when he pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators to “conceal his ownership of a private company he was inappropriately using his official position to promote,” according to the Justice Department. Hearing still describes himself as a co-founder of the company on his LinkedIn profile.

Hearing declined to comment on the NGA report. 

Oleg Vornick, DroneShield’s CEO and managing director, said the report “deals with Brian in a personal capacity, hence I am not in a position to comment from the company perspective.” Vornick said Hearing hasn’t been involved with the company in any capacity for several years. “It's accurate to say that the business has very substantially developed and grown since that time.”

According to the NGA’s inspector general, as part of his job the employee under investigation — believed to be Hearing — was supposed to look for new innovations, but counter-drone technology was not one of them, and he was not authorized to venture off and “conduct independent research”.  

The report describes how the employee used his NGA title to build a sort of house of cards. In March 2014, he told Department of Homeland Security representatives that DroneShield had a cooperative research-and-development agreement with NGA. That enabled him to get his company entered into a DHS-sponsored “Drone Rodeo,” a demonstration event for counter-drone tech. DHS officials didn’t know about his affiliation with the company; they assumed he was acting as an NGA official. The deception was potentially lucrative — and illegal.  He was able to receive “access to proprietary and classified information because it was believed his attendance was for NGA and official U.S. Government business,” the report said.

Having wrangled a slot at the Drone Rodeo, he persuaded the Army one month later to let DroneShield enter the service’s Black Dart counter-drone live-fire exercise.

‘We're involved with DHS's drone detection program and are sponsoring a passive acoustic sensor,” the employee wrote to Black Dart organizers, according to the report. He added that DroneShield had received the required official sponsorship from NGA. He also told organizers that DroneShield “had obtained the acoustic signatures for the Puma and the Raven drones from the U.S. Army Night Vision Lab.” That would potentially give them an advantage over competitors, enabling them to see drones other systems would not. 

It all seemed to be going well until he began spending so much time on his side hustle he was ignoring regular work, racking up unexplained leave time. He was also asking to be detailed to other agencies like DHS. The employee even used his position to contact lawmakers involved in drone legislation. In November 2013, the employee contacted Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on FAA legislation relevant to drones, even though he was not authorized to do so as part of his job. 

The NGA inspector general also reviewed the employee’s emails, which “revealed numerous possible foreign contacts.” It provides no further information on that point. 

Last year, the Defense Department stood up a new Joint Counter Small Unmanned Aerial System Office to coordinate the buying of counter-drone tech across the entire military. Up to that point, the Pentagon had spent “a couple billion dollars” to develop and deploy counter-drone tech with little overall organization, according to Army Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, who leads the office. Gainey spoke earlier this month at a CSIS event.