Darkhive: Born in the Dirt
Updated: Jul 12
It was Fall in Southern Afghanistan and the weather was really nice from what I remember. We pulled our vehicles up on a hill overlooking a small village that was about an hours drive North from our small outpost. The main reason for being there was a scheduled meeting with a local village elder, but we had been told by our Afghan partners that the local Taliban had several fighting positions established in the surrounding area. After talking about it a bit, we decided to launch our tactical drone to give us some overwatch for our main element and alert them to any movements in the surrounding hills as they made their way down to the village. We had two qualified drone pilots on our Platoon who proceeded to unload the small, fixed-wing tactical drone from the back of one of the Humvees. It took about 20 minutes to put together and, once assembled, looked like a large model plane, with a wingspan a little over twice my arms length. They kicked-on the small propeller on the nose and one member of the operator team gave it a hard toss and off it went. Back in the vehicle, the other operator sat at a small computer piloting the drone and watching the full-motion video feed streaming back across the radio link. This was our first time bringing the drone out since we arrived and I have to admit, I thought it was a really cool sight. We'd done a lot of training with this particular platform back State-side and it was going to be amazing to have an eye in the sky giving us a heads-up if there was any activity in the hills.
Now. I can't remember specifically what happened on this occasion. Because it was the first of several instances where this particular drone model crashed. But I'll pretend this was the time it was because of a link-loss between the pilot terminal and the drone. On the computer where the operator was piloting the drone, the link indicator went dead and we stopped receiving updates on the display. We watched the platform arc out of our sight and disappear between two ridge lines about 2km away. I'm pretty sure everyone held their breath, somewhere inside saying "please come out the other end, please come out the other end." But the drone never re-emerged. It had crashed and it was not going to be a fun hike to recover it. We cancelled one leg of the mission so that a small group could attempt to locate and salvage what we could from the platform. I was with the main element so I didn't get to see the state of the drone when it was recovered, but I did see the annoyed, angry faces of my buddies who made that gnarly hike into the mountains.
Not only did we get zero value from the platform, but we lost time on the mission we were supposed to be running there in the first place. Now, I don't think there was ever some formal decree from our Platoon leadership that we would not be using the drone anymore. It just seemed to occur naturally. The conversation went from "let's put the drone up!" to "should we put the drone up?" and then finally no one even bringing it up as an option. It became a novelty we used when there was little to no risk on a mission and it was a thing to do to stave off boredom.
Later on that deployment, we returned to the same village for some follow-up meetings with the elder. I was attached to a small overwatch element with two snipers and our interpreter, tasked with finding a good position to provide cover for the main element as they made their way to the village to conduct the meeting. On our way in, sitting right below the ridge where the drone had crashed earlier in the deployment, we began taking effective fire from an enemy belt-fed machine gun. We quickly found cover and returned fire on their position located at the top of the ridge. On this mission, as was often the case, we had no larger drone support from the Special Operations Task Force or Regional Commands, so we had no means to get eyes on the enemy position. They had terrain advantage and we had no idea how many of them there might be. It could have been two fighters taking an easy shot at us or there could have been more on the way. So our element leader made the right decision to break contact. That ended up turning into a not-so-fun evolution that included scaling down a cliff in the dark with a long hike back up to the vehicle package. But we made it back in one piece, no worse for the wear. We decided to do an overnight to see if we could catch the fighters breaking down their fighting position in the dark. Our ground force commander, the overwatch element leader, and I grabbed our gear and hiked up to spot with good visibility across the valley. We laid out our ground pads and our sniper set up his rifle. I sat back against some rocks and watched the valley below. I thought about what we needed to have been more effective in that short fire fight. Then I thought about the drone. How big it was. How hard it was to assemble. How hard it was to pilot. How it kept crashing. That's when I asked myself a question that every service member that has ever been in the field asks at one point or another: "Why does NOTHING work?"
I didn't know it at the time. But that is when Darkhive was born. Right there in the dirt. In the dark. On a tiny little hill in Afghanistan.
I got out of the military in 2016 and went into the defense industry. There I met a lot of incredibly talented engineers, hard working folks at research labs, and dedicated professionals within the program offices responsible for acquiring and fielding technology for our Warfighters. If anything has been defining for me as a veteran working in this industry it has been that I never forgot that night on the hill. Everyone is trying their best to fix these issues, but often times bureaucratic processes have driven a wedge between the users in the field and the POR trying desperately to support them.
Seeing these challenges from both perspectives is what led us to our development approach and philosophy at Darkhive. The users opinion is all the matters. When we are building something for them, we go where they go to develop it. "Start over" is an acceptable response no matter where we are in the process. This is the only approach that I have ever seen produce a solution that actually solved a problem. It isn't easy, but it is what we owe the community.
See you out there.
John Goodson, CEO Darkhive