Chronicle of a flight foretold

Poster by T.WEE Comics — CC BY-NC-ND

¡Vuela! (vuela.cc), is an open science and technology project we have been working on for over a year. One of our objectives in 2017 was to communicate our learnings as much as possible, in part to force us to review and analyze continuously and consistently what was working and what was not. But we got lost among cables and batteries. This year, however, our objectives are somewhat different, more complex no doubt, and therefore putting our learnings into writing seems crucial. In this first blog, I describe how and why we decided to start Vuela. The errors, successes, and specific learnings will come in the following articles.


Flying through the window (of opportunities)

Making and flying an open source drone was not a whim, but the result of us trying to make the most out of a window of opportunity. Before starting Vuela (“Fly”) with Gustavo, from March to July 2017, Jeffe Van Holle and I worked in a series of experimental workshops. We wanted to explore how to grow capabilities and empowerment by experimenting with both the physical and digital layers of the public space, among traditionally segregated groups. The last iteration, with funding from Hivos, Baltan Laboratories and the support of many others, had been the making of hand-crank powered flashlights in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Melipilla (a post here). Unexpectedly, those showing up to these workshops were mainly Haitian immigrants, recent inhabitants of the neighborhood.

During that process, the hypotheses that guided us were that many of the socio-economic divisions and relations we observe in the physical space are reproduced in the digital and technological space. That gaining empowerment among segregated groups requires addressing the barriers in both layers of the public space, which implies that those who experience segregation gain (and act upon) new digital and technological capabilities. These hypotheses continued to be the basis of our later work with Vuela.

While making flashlights with motors recovered from old printers and plastic bottles, the issues we kept thinking about had to do with collaborative learning, with how to combine diverse knowledges, especially from those that are usually presumed to not have any relevant knowledge. Coincidently, in March 2017 we had joined a global open science hardware gathering in Santiago de Chile (GOSH), and had started networking with people who had similar issues in their heads. Once Jeffe returned to Holland to finish his studies, the question was how to continue experimenting based on the learnings and the hypotheses we had.

Part of the answer came from Gustavo, whom I met at GOSH, when he sent me an article about an open source drone that seemed rather easy to make. Maybe we could start experimenting with drones. This did not seem too crazy; Gustavo had been working for some time in Argentina these types of drones in agriculture, although he had never made one. He suggested to start with an existing project, called Flone (“Flying Phone”, flone.cc). In previous workshops we had experienced first-hand how crucial was to have the documentation in local languages ​​and the Flone documentation was in Spanish; a good starting point.

Another part of the answer came from a friend, (whom I had met on Twitter a year earlier) who suggested that we could apply for a conference called “Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies” (KCE), with a Flone workshop. Maybe that’d help us get funding. The window was now being opened.

Gustavo and I proposed to KCE a series of workshops in the same periphery neighborhoods where we had been working. We wanted to explore, to use drones to enter the physical space, and then study the digital space through aerial images. The drones seemed like a good excuse to talk about who owns the technology, who uses and defines the space, who can fly, who can not, and why. The proposal included a series of hands on drone-making workshops over a period of a few weeks, with a final workshop with researchers from KCE and with those who would have made and flown the Flone by then.

Trans-Andean Flones

The Flone is an open software and hardware drone created by Aeracoop, easy to build, fly, repair and modify. When one of the co-organizers of KCE, the Núcleo Milenio Energía y Sociedad (Numies), confirmed their help with funding, we bought components in China (via internet) and began to plan the workshops. Gustavo, in Argentina, started building the Flone ahead of us, in part because he received the components before we did, but also to assess potential obstacles along the way. His tutorial videos were key. Watching them made things easier for Crew members, who did not speak Spanish or English, to follow the process, intervene and contribute. Without that, it would have taken us much longer to complete the Flone. Then it came November the 18th, the day of the final workshop, having made the first drone with a bunch of people, more than 15. We called it Meliflone. We were ready to fly.

Crash and get up, quickly

That day we had our first flight. We also had our first crash. Thanks to what we had learned in the process, we did the repair in-situ and we flew it again, and also recorded videos from above. But crashing was not the only failing part: we had not made the 2 other Flones as we had planned, the images we took were not at all good, and we didn’t practice flying, specially us, the women in the Crew. Needless to say, but we wanted to keep flying.

Towards the end of this process, a specific local problem was defined by some of the Crew members living in one of the two neighbourhoods we had worked on. This problem turned out to be one of the main topics of the conversation between the Crew and the KCE researchers during the final workshop. The Meliflone ​​was locally seen as a potential tool to tackle a locally defined problem.

Fly higher

The various learnings (which we will detail in the following articles), together with the results of our first flight, led us to decide to improve the Flone. That is why in the current stage, funded by a mini grant from Mozilla Science Lab, we expect to contribute to one of GOSH’s key objectives. This is to guarantee access to the necessary instruments so that diverse groups can make, and benefit from, science and technology. We are developing a prototype toolkit to make open science with drones, equally accessible to marginal communities, activists, or researchers, and useful for studies or surveys that need aerial images. Drones are no longer unusual in research or activism, but they are mostly closed-code drones (black box, as we like to call it). And these, when they are destroyed/crashed (inevitable when learning to fly), can take months to be repaired by the manufacturing companies.

The word “Vuela” (Fly) came up when we were making posters to invite neighbors to participate in the workshops. We decided to adopt it as the title of the project, since we want this to be an open and permanent invitation to fly. Literally flying, but also understood as a metaphor for overcoming barriers, encouraging all of us to act collectively, sticking our noses and hands into technology and science.

Email us: vuelanendron@gmail.com