As a USAF C-17 pilot, I was entrusted to deliver cargo into the heart of war zones. I am also an Arabic-speaking Middle East specialist, and in March 2014 I was doing research among Syrian refugees in eastern Turkey. At the time the Syrian government was besieging entire neighborhoods to break their will. Children were starving, snipers were allegedly shooting teenagers foraging for weeds, and clerics had given besieged civilians permission to eat cats and dogs.
Syrians asked me why the US could not simply airdrop aid. Political challenges aside, the truth is that we cannot usually fly big cargo aircraft such as the C-17 into hostile airspace without kinetic operations to destroy air defenses like radars, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-aircraft guns. This became apparent a few months later, when the US launched its first air strikes against ISIS to facilitate airdrops to the Yazidi population trapped on Mt. Sinjar.
The sieges haunted me. Surely in the 21st century there was a way to fight back against those who used starvation and medical deprivation as weapons. It occurred to me that advances in drone technology might open up a new paradigm: using large numbers of small drones to slip past air defense systems and deliver small packets of cargo.
I assembled a team, and we spent the next year and a half trying to make that vision a reality. We called it the Syria Airlift Project, and incorporated under a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Uplift Aeronautics.
Ultimately, we failed—at least this time around. I still believe the swarming airlift concept is sound, but our team was ahead of its time. Drone technology was in its toddler years, and soaring expectations gave way to a truth that experienced drone developers often recite: drones are hard. According to the Gartner Research “hype cycle”, this is normal for any new technology. The good news is that hype and disillusionment eventually yield to a new stage: a steady climb up the slope of enlightenment. This is where a new technology shows its true value.
Founding and leading Uplift Aeronautics–and presiding over the eventual failure–was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It taught me what Ben Horowitz says is the most difficult CEO skill: managing your own psychology. It also gave me the experience, confidence, and drive to build teams to tackle extraordinarily hard projects. These lessons would prove invaluable when I cofounded Rogue Squadron at the Defense Innovation Unit.