Crowdfunding campaigns can raise money for some pretty wacky projects, such as asteroid defense or images of brains on LSD. But rarely do you hear of campaigns raising funds for military equipment. Enter the People's Project, a volunteer-led organisation based in Ukraine that has a section currently raising funds for a military drone.
The war in East Ukraine recently passed its one-year mark, with the conflict only showing signs of heating up again. Despite numerous ceasefire attempts, clashes continue between the Ukrainian military forces and the Russian-backed separatists in a conflict, which has already cost more than 5,000 lives.
Founded in March 2014 by Mykolaiv-based IT entrepreneur and social activist David Arakhamiya, the People's Project currently has around 70 active volunteers based all over Ukraine. Calling themselves the "IT battalions who back up Ukraine's cash-strapped and poorly equipped military," the group have so far raised over $2 million dollars through their website, which they hope to put towards everything from uniforms to medical operations and small arms for the Ukrainian army.
I reached out to Jacob Cereteli, who's currently heading up a project to raise funds for a People's PD-1 drone—which could be used in reconnaissance surveillance, target acquisition and enemy location monitoring—for more information.
Over email, Cereteli said that the idea behind this drone campaign was sparked when he came across some technicians who were already making small hobbyist quadcopters and training Ukrainian soldiers to use them six months ago.
"Back then, it was a huge help for our army because there were no drones at all, and those toy copters actually saved lives," he said. Inspired by these initial DIY quadcopters, Cereteli teamed up with the technicians behind them to develop the bigger PD-1 drone project.
The PD-1 drone program is trying to raise $36,750 to help pay for a drone, support van, and control equipment, and is already 75 percent funded. Cereteli explained that flight tests have proven that it can fly up to 40 km, and equipped with both a day-view and thermal cameras, the drone can provide video feedback in real-time to people on the ground.
He hoped that the war would end, though he noted that this seemed unlikely anytime soon
In a nutshell, the drone would let Ukrainian soldiers on the ground keep tabs on the location of Russian forces, who already have the advantage of specialised drone tech.
Yet according to Cereteli, given a drone's short lifespan, they'll need more in the future. "My personal opinion is that planes stay alive for around five missions, before either failing mechanically, getting crashed by the pilot, or shot down," he said. So the group are also working on smaller quadcopters, which have a five km flying radius, and which can be sold to the army for around $3,000 to $4,000 dollars in the interim.
The People's Project have so far funded over 50 campaigns. But crowdfunding for military equipment isn't exactly easy, with projects sometimes receiving criticism from both the general public and the Russian opposition, according to Cereteli.
"I would say that trust is one of the most important things in our job," he said, explaining that promoting transparency through sharing reports and updates on projects allowed the People's Project to counter criticism and gain public support.
"Probably after Maidan [peaceful protests in 2013 that quickly turned violent] they [the public] realised that they actually can change something in their own country. Some people help with money, others with transportation, development and research," he explained.
Despite having public support, and receiving funding for their projects from individuals both in Ukraine and internationally, Cereteli said that current government laws and masses of red tape still prevented the group from quickly importing essential equipment.
"We are working to make our army and country better, but we still face resistance from the government in many aspects," explained Cereteli, who noted how hard it was to import parts for a UAV or other military-related equipment into Ukraine. "There are dozens of laws that really prevent volunteers from working effectively."
Ultimately, Cereteli said that he hoped that the war would end, though he noted that this seemed unlikely anytime soon. The war, he said, had united the Ukrainian people, but he noted that goals would only be achieved once the system was restructured.
"We meet people who help us all the time, but those are individuals. We have to implement new laws and change the system, so we can bring equipment to militaries faster, without custom payments and taxes," he said.