Drones — like sharks and William Shatner — are often misunderstood by the public. Many associate the autonomous fliers with warfare and creepy government spies. But drones can be heroic, dropping life-saving supplies to civilians in combat zones.
That's what US Air Force member/Stanford PhD student Mark Jacobsen wants to do with his crowdfunding effort, the Syria Airlift Project. While spending time in Eastern Turkey, he met refugees from Syria, which has been in political turmoil since early 2011, and where over 600,000 people live in hard-to-access, besieged areas.
Jacobsen, a cargo pilot, learned of hospitals seized, doctors assassinated, and children who died of illness or starvation, and decided to help. But how do you smuggle supplies into a country where doing so can lead to torture or execution? You drop them from above.
The problem? A humanitarian cargo plane ferrying crates of vaccines and nonperishables sticks out like a sore thumb in Syrian skies. Drones are harder to spot. They're harder to hit.
The plan: With the help of existing aid organisations on the ground, load a few drones with medicine or products like QuickClot that are crucial in violent environments. Launch the drones from the Turkish border in the dead of night. Each drone (capable of carrying 2kg, and able to fly 50km each way) parachutes coveted items to a village. Then they head back to the border to be collected and loaded for the next run, toting low-weight, high-value deliverables like vitamins, baby milk or water purification tools.
Eventually, Jacobsen's team wants each fleet to contain 10 to 15 aircraft. Jacobsen says that if a device is launched every five minutes, over 180kg of supplies could be delivered in one night. And that's just for one fleet.
But what if a drone does get shot down? To ensure the safety of those below, and to prevent an intact drone from literally falling into the wrong hands, each of Jacobsen's UAVs has a built-in self-destruct mechanism that triggers once the aircraft starts flying wacky.
Sending drones into relatively lawless conflict zones, plopping miracle goods into the laps of panicking innocents in the midst of it all, is somewhat uncharted territory. Some other UAV companies on the humanitarian scene include Parrot's Sensefly — but many companies focus on image-capturing and data-gathering, not so much on delivery, in conflict situations or areas rocked by natural disasters.
Even if Jacobsen and his team of volunteers don't meet their crowdfunding goal of $US50,000, they still plan on dispatching drones for good. They may bring the drones to the relief efforts following the Nepalese earthquake. That's also their plan B if they can't iron out the wrinkle-filled parachute of legalities that involves applying for licenses, following various US and Turkish regulations, obtaining permission to enter Syria, and abiding by UN guidelines.
Assuming they hit their funding goals, they will travel to Turkey to start a pilot program, and then seek permission to enter Syria.
"The [drones'] colour scheme is a combination of two different flags: the Syrian flag and the flag of the opposition groups," Jacobsen says. (The design is overlaid with a dove.) "We hope our planes become symbols of hope and peace."
If you're like me and want to feel like you're actually bettering the world, you should donate to Jacobsen's Indiegogo campaign here.
Pictures: Mark Jacobsen