California Company Moving to Miami, Establishing Hub in Orlando
When Daniel Robinson was a boy obsessed with the movie Superman, he would stand outdoors trying to take flight. But even a child’s imagination could not have prepared him for the thrilling career he would experience as a fighter pilot and businessman.
“I was enamored with Christopher Reeve’s character flying down Fifth Avenue in New York,” recalled the founder and CEO of Red 6, a technology company that is changing the way the military trains its combat pilots. “All I wanted my Superman to do was save cats from trees and perform good deeds.”
He would go on to become a fan of Star Wars and Top Gun — fitting for a young man who took to the skies for real as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom. Robinson also later became the first non-American in the world to fly the F-22 Raptor. It was after meeting Glenn Snyder in 2018 and seeing the groundbreaking work he’d been doing in virtual reality that Robinson came up with the vision for Red 6. Snyder now serves as the company’s chief product officer.
In a victory for Florida economic development leaders, Red 6 announced in August that it is moving its operations to the Sunshine State from California sometime in 2022. Within days, the company announced it had won a $70 million contract with the Air Force, making the move even more significant for Florida.
Although Red 6’s official headquarters will be in Miami, where Robinson will live, its technology hub will be located in Orlando because of the city’s international reputation as a center for companies working on modeling, simulation and training projects for military and civilian use.
“I’d always associated Orlando with theme parks, frankly,” Robinson said. “I didn’t fully understand the complementary aspects of the cluster of technology companies that exist there.” When he looked around Central Florida, he also found access to what he described as a talented human capital pool from places like the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Full Sail University.
Fighter Pilot Training
Red 6’s allure is based on its trailblazing technology. Traditionally, fighter pilots have been trained through the use of other pilots pretending to be adversaries, also known as red air, hence the company’s name. This type of synthetic combat air training is very expensive, Robinson said.
Every time Robinson flew an F-22 to get training, he needed someone to fly against as the “bad guy.” At a cost of about $100,000 per flight hour, using a second plane and pilot to replicate an adversary doubled that cost to about $200,000. Not only is that pricey, Robinson said, but the military doesn’t have enough airplanes or pilots to provide the amount of training that combat pilots need.
In response to that problem, Red 6 tackled this fundamental question: “Could we put real pilots and airplanes up in the sky but replace the need for real adversary aircraft by replacing them with synthetic assets that don’t physically exist, but ones that the aircraft sensors believe to be there and, critically, assets the pilots can physically see and maneuver against?”
To make this vision a reality, Red 6 created an Airborne Tactical Augmented Reality System (ATARS), a technology that does just that by putting virtual planes and pilots in the sky that real pilots in real planes can maneuver against in real-time. Using a combination of augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence, the technology is the first AR solution in the world to work outdoors and in the most dynamic of environments. Pilots can now fight virtual enemies, practice aerial refueling and formation flying, and work through combat scenarios all while pulling G’s in a high-speed, real-world environment.
Virtual vs. Augmented Reality
Military fighter pilots have trained with simulators using virtual reality before, but augmented reality is different. Where virtual reality creates an entirely new world, augmented reality adds images to real surroundings — for example, showing an airplane against the actual sky instead of creating both the aircraft and the sky.
“Augmented reality is a much more complex and nuanced problem to solve,” Robinson said, “because we aim to put synthetic or virtual entities into the real world and have people interact seamlessly with them. So if I’m flying my airplane, I see the sky and the mountains but superimposed on that real-world are augmented assets — in this case, airplanes that I can now train against.” It’s safer, too, he pointed out, because there are no adversary planes to crash into.
ATARS puts its AR technology into an airplane’s cockpit by projecting an image onto the visor of the pilot’s helmet. Its ability to work outdoors and in high-speed environments makes it perfect for realistic combat training.
Air Force Contract
The Air Force, which has been interested in Red 6’s ATARS since its creation, has awarded the company a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase III contract worth up to $70 million over five years. The award will allow the company to pursue the commercialization of Red 6’s AR platform for purchase not only by the Air Force but also by the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.
“Innovation within training is needed now more than ever to remain competitive with our adversaries,” Dr. Winston Bennett of the Air Force said in a news release. “Red 6 is delivering a solution to current pain points in training that, if fixed, could solve several national security issues we face today.” Bennett is part of the Warfighter Interactions and Readiness Division.
Red 6 will begin integrating its ATARS technology into a T-38 Talon jet immediately. That work, which will be a big focus for Red 6 in the next 12 to 18 months, will take place at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
“The contract is significant because we are stepping out from our own test platforms and test aircraft for the first time,” said Robinson, adding that Red 6 already worked with the Air Force in SBIR phases I and II, which were more about research and development. “Now we’re putting ATARS into a supersonic jet trainer with an ejection seat, and with all of the militarization that’s involved in that.”
Bound for Florida
Robinson said he decided to move his company to Florida because it’s more welcoming to businesses than California. Miami offers explosive growth and a massive shift of private equity and venture capital, he said, while Orlando’s renowned modeling and simulation industry provides an ideal foundation for Red 6 to grow. UCF has not only acquired an international reputation as a center for simulation and training, it is also the nation’s No. 1 supplier of graduates for the aerospace and defense industries.
With Brightline high-speed passenger rail set to connect Orlando and Miami starting in late 2022, Robinson chose both cities for Red 6 operations. “I felt that neither location offered everything we need, but it made a tremendous amount of sense to me to capture the value of both places,” he said. “I don’t really think about it in terms of an Orlando or Miami success story — I think of it as a Florida success story.”
Red 6 has not yet chosen a site for its Orlando technology hub, where software engineering will be conducted, although Robinson has opened a temporary office in the Central Florida Research Park near UCF and said he is intrigued by Lake Nona. The growing area of east Orlando has already attracted autonomous shuttle company Beep and electric flying cab company Lilium, among other innovative companies.
In addition, Red 6 has not decided which Orlando airport will house its experimental Berkut 540 (pronounced burr-COOT) airplanes, which Robinson built and calls his “mobile augmented reality flying labs.” He is working with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which oversees Orlando International Airport and Orlando Executive Airport.
The company of about 40 employees is growing quickly and will begin hiring for its high-wage jobs soon. In a coup for the company, Red 6 welcomed aboard Sheena Fowler, the former director of innovation at Orlando Economic Partnership, which played a key role in persuading Robinson to come to Orlando. Fowler will serve as senior director of strategic partnerships and business development and became Red 6’s first Orlando-based team member in August.
“The collaborative nature in which everyone seems to work together makes it almost like an Orlando LLC, and the interesting companies and the amount of collaboration and goodwill in that ecosystem is tremendously powerful.”
Exacting Business Education
Robinson left the Air Force in 2009 after becoming a flight training instructor and reaching what he felt was the pinnacle of his combat aviation career. “At some point, someone will tell you to stop flying airplanes, and I like to be in control of my own destiny,” he said. He figured business was the bridge to whatever he was going to do next, so he had earned an MBA from Georgetown University. In 2010, he moved to New York City and began work as a director of new business development for global investment firm Franklin Templeton.
After only a year there, he got a call from his father, who was CEO of Gus Robinson Developments, a construction and home-building company in the UK. His father said the company was in trouble and he needed his son to return home and help him.
Robinson got on the next plane, but his father committed suicide before he arrived, leaving a shocked, grieving family and a company on the brink of bankruptcy.
“It was extremely, extremely difficult,” Robinson said of the time he spent rescuing the company for his mother, sisters and employees. “I was sitting there with a really interesting background of leadership and management experience, an MBA and some time in finance, so I had a certain skill set and experience level that was commensurate with being asked to do something of that magnitude. But I suppose the question was, did I have the character to do what was being asked of me?”
He said he knew his life in New York was over — and so was a powerful relationship he had built. “It was the first time I was really in love as an adult, and I lost that person the same year as my dad because I knew that once I stepped home, it was going to be all-consuming. I was involved in a proverbial dogfight to keep the company alive. It was broken from top to bottom, so it was a tremendous, tremendous education.”
Back to His Own Dreams
After six exhausting years of turning the company around, Robinson left the UK for California to find something to make him happy, with no clear idea what that might be.
“I bought a surfboard,” he told a Full Sail University audience in July. “And I went out into the ocean and sat on that surfboard every night and watched the sun go down … and asked myself the difficult questions. Losing my dad in the way I did really crystallized what was important for me in life. I thought about how all the money in the world but no time is as worthless as all the time in the world with no money.”
He said he thought about how much he loved flying, but it had been a while, so he took flying lessons and earned a pilot’s license. The hangar he was based out of housed an experimental aircraft he admired, so he began to work on that plane and decided together with the designer of that aircraft that he would create his own. The Berkut 540 they built would go on to be the aircraft Red 6 would use to test its ATARS technology.
Around this time, Robinson met Snyder, who had created a sophisticated virtual reality game in 2015 featuring two real race cars on separate tracks that appeared to be competing on the same track.
“When I saw Glenn’s technology with the race cars, it was a lightbulb moment for me,” Robinson said. “That’s when I came up with the idea of Red 6 and accomplishing that feat in an airplane.”
Creating ATARS hasn’t been easy, but that didn’t stop Robinson. “I’ve always liked working on difficult problems with extraordinary people,” he said. “After I came back to California, I asked myself, ‘If I knew when the end of my life was coming, how could I live as truthfully as possible and how would I spend my time?’ And it was while answering those questions that I decided to build an airplane, which has led me to the most extraordinary chapter of my life with Red 6.
“There is a major purpose behind it, and that is the geopolitical threat I see from the re-emergence of Russia onto the world stage and the rise of China. I’ve surrounded myself with the most capable, extraordinary, beautiful people who believe in my vision and are working hard to achieve it. And that’s something I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to be able to do, whether flying airplanes in the military, transforming Dad’s company or going to business school. I’ve been very, very lucky, and it’s always been the people around me that I’ve enjoyed the most.”