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Could Drones Circumvent Syria’s Efforts To Block Humanitarian Aid?

In the Middle East, drones usually mean death and destruction. But the Syrian Airlift Project, led by one U.S. Air Force pilot, is looking to use them to save lives.

If Amazon wants to deliver your books and laundry detergent refills by drone, then why can’t we use drones to deliver things that matter, like food and medicine?

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In the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Syrian government has used food deprivation as a weapon of war, and has prevented aid workers from delivering the supplies that might help feed its beleaguered people. Mark Jacobsen, a U.S. Air Force pilot, wanted to find a way to get aid in, despite the government’s tactics. To do so, he founded the Syria Airlift Project, a nonprofit that will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver aid.

Using drones to deliver humanitarian aid might seem like the latest instance of technophile hubris when we have a perfectly serviceable solution in cargo planes and air drops. But it’s not just a case of using new tech for the sake of new tech. A cargo plane, like the C-17 that Jacobsen flies for the Air Force, would be shot down by anti-aircraft missiles. So after spending time in the Middle East and encountering Syrian refugees, Jacobsen was determined to find delivery mechanism that didn’t rely on cargo planes.

“We looked at everything from to quadcopters to blimps to catapults and gliders,” says Jacobsen. “I couldn’t stop thinking about this problem. Surely, at this point in the 21st century there must be some way to deliver some amount of aid to these areas. Eventually we settled on fixed-wing UAVs.”


The drones that Syrian Airlift Project plans to use are small enough that they won’t be detected by radar and targeted by anti-air defenses. By flying very quietly at night, Jacobsen believes they’ll be able to make it through undetected. But even if one is shot down, it won’t be the end of the world.

“The key to our paradigm is that we’re not relying on one airplane,” says Jacobsen. “We’re essentially building a conveyor belt.”

The aid missions are designed around a large number of relatively cheap drones delivering relatively small payloads. At $500 to $1,000 a unit, losing one doesn’t doom the project. They will be constructed from kits of electronic parts and materials available at any hardware store. Whereas a cargo plane might deliver thousands of kilograms in a single drop, Syria Airlift Project’s drones will only drop one kilogram at a time.

“It’s not a lot, but it’s also not trivial if we’re talking about medical supplies,” says Jacobsen.

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The team is currently exploring fixed-wing UAV models. Although most drone delivery concepts (like Amazon’s) use quadcopters, fixed-wings have more range, which is important to get from Turkey’s southern border to the populated centers in Syria. Right now the small one-kilogram-payload drones can make a 30 kilometer round trip. Jacobsen hopes to nearly double both the capacity and range to two kilograms and 50 kilometers.

Syrian Airlift Project is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to send members of the team to Turkey to run a pilot project this summer. Those team members will then train Syrian refugees on how to build and operate UAVs themselves. The day-to-day operations of the project will then effectively be in their hands.

“We’re not just making airplanes and we’re not just delivering cargo,” says Jacobsen. “We really want to empower Syrian refugees in neighboring countries to take ownership of this project and bring aid back into their country. The goal is to build a mass-nonviolent movement.”

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.

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