I apologize for the long interval since our last update, but we’ve spent the summer amidst white-water rapids: riding the currents of progress, navigating the dizzying whirlpools of politics, and paddling hard to keep our nose pointed the right direction even as we avoid the treacherous obstacles along the way. There is nothing easy about an effort to airdrop humanitarian relief into the heart of conflict zones using drones, and it’s been a hard journey. Nonetheless, we’ve finally reached some still water. We have some time to catch our breath, communicate our progress and setbacks, and gather our strength for the next stretch of rapids.
The Pilot Project
Despite a herculean effort by the entire Uplift team, we were not able to execute a pilot project in the Middle East this summer. A combination of war-related political developments, insufficient political support, and unforeseen engineering delays worked against us.
War-related developments: The US relationship with Turkey has grown more and more complicated with the expansion of ISIS. Turkish discussion of an invasion of Syria, and its recent bombing campaign against the Kurds (a US ally against ISIS), made a project in Turkey increasingly problematic. Furthermore, battlefield developments near Idlib and Aleppo have (thankfully!) alleviated the threat of sieges and reduced the need for our aircraft in the northern region. This led us to begin exploring options outside of Turkey. We have an opportunity emerging in Jordan, but it will take time and much uncertainty remains.
Insufficient political support: We took our Sacramento video and our proposal straight to the heart of the US government—Air Force headquarters, US embassies, State Department officials, advisors to key officials in the Administration, and UN officials working on Syria. While we received many expressions of admiration and respect, that did not translate into the institutional help we were hoping for. This has made it challenging to enter the region. We have found wonderful allies along the way, but they are generally private individuals or small aid organizations.
Engineering challenges: On July 3rd one of our aircraft crashed at Stanford University, starting a brush fire. The fire department quickly contained the fire, and the emergency responders praised Uplift for its professionalism and preparedness, but this was a significant setback. We made the choice to halt flying while we investigated the crash, digested lessons, and re-engineered our Waliid aircraft with new safety improvements. We decided that rather than push ahead in pursuit of aggressive milestones, we would be better served by slowing down, methodically improving our capabilities, and focusing on developing the highest quality aircraft possible.
Despite the setbacks, but we are still moving forward on many fronts. We have redesigned our Waliid aircraft with custom 3D printed parts that can be printed on demand in the field. The new design includes cases for batteries and integrated fuses that will mitigate the risk of fire and increase safety. We have also made great progress with our custom aircraft firmware, which includes security features like the autopilot self-destruct system, a PIN requirement to operate aircraft, and no-fly zones around airports. These features are essential to safely and responsibly operating UAVs in conflict zones. Uplift members Julian Alvarez and Ewan Kay are designing an entirely new aircraft called the Light Utility Vehicle for humanitarian cargo delivery.
As for implementation, Uplift has struck up some wonderful partnerships. Foremost among them is Refugee Open Ware (Row3D), a nonprofit based in Jordan that is standing up three “fab labs”, one of which teaches Syrian refugees to design and manufacture prosthetics for their wounded countrymen. We have a possible opportunity to travel to Jordan in the spring to help Row3D stand up a humanitarian-focused UAV lab. We can make no promises, but are working hard to make this happen.
Uplift’s very existence is contributing to an ongoing policy dialog. The Syria Airlift Project opened up a policy discussion about humanitarian UAVs in conflict zones, which was previously taboo. A former British diplomat told us that SAP’s very existence—an example of private citizens trying to fulfill humanitarian responsibilities that governments have abdicated—has helped with a campaign to shame governments into humanitarian action, and started a conversation within the British government. Just by trying, we are succeeding in ways we can’t even know.
Uplift is also continuing to do important work apart from the Syria Airlift Project. We recently collaborated with a Microsoft hackathon team to develop a prototype airspace management tool that could help safely integrate UAVs into disaster response zones. Uplift plans to use the prototype to spark discussion among the humanitarian UAV and disaster response communities. We hope it will serve as a springboard to a fuller solution that can be deployed in the field.
Uplift has also been doing research on humanitarian UAV applications. In May, following his evacuation from Yemen amidst the civil war, team member Edward Prados surveyed Yemani hospitals about specific medical needs that could be alleviated through the use of small UAVs. His report is an important step in providing hard data about how UAVs might assist in conflict zones. Elise Thomas—with help from Edward Prados, Konstantin Klein, Katharine Tice, and Rajit Das—are finishing up a journal article about the opportunities and challenges of micro-UAV payload delivery. Throughout the fall our team members will be speaking about humanitarian UAVs in a variety of forums.
Team member Ali Al-A’trash has embraced Uplift’s mission of empowering and aiding communities through innovative aviation technology. He has built a program for teaching middle school girls how to build and fly quadcopters—bolstering their self-confidence and sparking an interest in STEM fields. For fun, he has taken up drone fishing (he’s caught two fish this way).
Our Greatest Challenge
We are very proud of our successes, but we still confront one immense challenge: our sustainability as an all-volunteer organization. We have pushed ourselves as hard as we could possibly go. The team did amazing things, but the relentless pace has taken a huge toll. We have to slow down and get our lives back in balance. This has been hard to admit, because one of our top concerns has been keeping faith with our donors. We want to live up to your expectations.
We have been doing a lot of soul searching. We contemplated admitting failure, dissolving Uplift, and re-donating or refunding our remaining assets. But as we have approached mentors and friends for advice, we have heard the same message over and over: don’t give up. We believe in you. We believe in what you are trying to accomplish. No other organization on the planet is doing what we are: trying to use UAVs to reach communities trapped in the heart of conflict zones. It’s too messy. It’s too hard. The technology is too experimental, and too far out ahead of the market. If Uplift doesn’t do it, nobody will… at least not any time soon.
The Way Ahead
We have decided that Uplift Aeronautics will continue pushing ahead in pursuit of its mission: empowering and aiding communities through innovative aviation technology. However, we need to be clear that we are making a pivot. If the summer has taught us anything, it’s that we are in uncharted waters. Both the politics and the technology are extremely complex, so we cannot offer guarantees about how events will unfold. Also, as an all-volunteer team, we’ve learned that there are limits to how fast we can move. All we can promise is that we’ll keep pursuing our vision with integrity, boldness, and creativity. In the grand sweep of history, it makes too much sense for robots to deliver aid where the danger to humans is high. We will keep blazing that trail as best we can, with the certainty that others will follow and build on our work.
What does this mean in the near term? First, our volunteers have made incredible sacrifices for Uplift, and we need some time to rest and heal. We are also going to focus on making Uplift Aeronautics stronger as an organization. That means focusing on internal training and growing more leaders who can share the workload. We will continue seeking more volunteers, particularly with engineering skills.
We will continue developing technologies that contribute to our vision of swarming airlift. Even though we have a promising airplane, we have a lot more work to do on the development and testing. Although we still aim to work with Row3D in Jordan, we will focus on testing and demonstrating our capabilities in our own backyard. Our experience with government and the aid community has shown us that there is great value in continuing with stateside demonstrations. We also hope to eventually provide training for partner organizations here in the U.S., who can then take our aircraft into the field. This partnership model would greatly alleviate the burden on our all-volunteer team and get around the constraint of our school-year schedule.
Our existing funds will go towards all these efforts. However, we recognize that some of you donated with the expectation of addressing immediate humanitarian needs in Syria. We respect that, and we want to keep faith with you too. If you donated to Uplift after April 1, 2015 and would prefer to repurpose your donation, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org prior to September 25th. We will refund 80% of your donation (the proportion of the funds we have remaining, after Indiegogo fees and ongoing engineering expenses) or re-donate that amount to one of our Syrian partner organizations.
To all of you who have supported Uplift, we can’t thank you enough. It has been an incredible journey, but one that has also made incredible demands of our volunteers. This is a hard project, folks. Really hard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been ready to quit, but each and every time, it is encouragement from our supporters that keeps us going. We will keep fighting to realize the vision that Uplift was founded on: helping to end the use of starvation and medical deprivation as weapons of war. That is a lifetime journey, and one that we can only take a step at a time. We’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, and see where the journey takes us.
In closing, I want to say special thanks to our volunteers. Each and every one of you is a remarkable human being. You have chosen to participate in something that is extraordinarily ambitious and difficult. I can’t express my gratitude for your hard work and your sacrifice, on top of your already busy lives. It has been remarkable to watch Uplift come together as a team, with new members taking such tremendous initiative to tackle problems and generate solutions. I look forward to seeing what we can continue to do together. Thank you for everything.