“Sarmin isn’t far from the border but the border is closed to all traffic,” Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, president of Syrian aid organization People Demand Change, texted his Stanford University-based friend Mark Jacobsen, four hours after the attack. “If your planes were ready, you could have flown in emergency medicine and gear.”
The planes Ghosh-Siminoff was referring to are drones, built expressly for this purpose. Jacobsen is the executive director of Uplift Aeronautics, a nonprofit which hopes to deliver essential medical supplies, food, and other cargo to Syrians via its Syria Airlift Project. Syria recently closed its border to foreign aid, and any planes that attempt to fly over the country run a high chance of being shot down. Uplift has a different plan: Fleets of drones that could swoop in by night, undetected by human eyes or radars.
Jacobsen, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science, was in Istanbul about a year ago with a group of academics when a heated discussion broke out about international intervention in the Syrian war. Since 2011’s Arab Spring, when activists came together to protest president Bashar al-Assad and his government, at least 200,000 people have died there. More than 10,000 were children. A lack of medical care and food are among the government’s weapons against its own people.
Person after person at the gathering asked the same question: Why isn’t more being done? Jacobsen, a former Air Force cargo pilot, explained to one attendee that you simply can’t fly a cargo plane into such an unpredictable place. It’s impossible.
He went back to his hotel that night feeling guilty. It didn’t seem like a good enough answer. While speaking with his colleagues, he became fixated on the idea of sending in large numbers of packages — perhaps via drone. He took out a notebook at around 2 or 3 a.m., the hope of sleep long forgotten.
“It seemed like I was onto something with the idea of swarming small packets, but I didn’t really know what technology could do that, whether it would be quadcopters or planes or catapults or anything else. Balloons?” Jacobsen says. “I was just trying to lay out everything I could think of.”
Uplift Aeronautics and the Syria Airlift Project were eventually born, and today Jacobsen and a group of volunteers are busy flying prototype drones. Their plan is to fly hundreds over the border from Turkey on missions chosen by aid partners such as People Demand Change. Each can carry only a few pounds of supplies, but their small size makes them untrackable by radar and dispensable. If a chlorine bomb explodes, medicine-carrying drones can be there in an hour, as opposed to days — or never.
Uplift plans to train Syrian refugees and other people on the ground in Turkey to fly and repair the drones. If it can get approval, its first test flights will lift off in the country in June. After that, it will send planes over the border as soon as the U.S. and Turkish governments allow it.
Its first destination would be Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The war has hit it hard. Hunger and disease are common.