Could aid-carrying drones assist war-torn Syria?

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The Syrian Airlift Project aims to send drones loaded with much needed supplies into war-torn Syria

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Once Syria's bustling economic center, an unrelenting barrage of artillery fire, gunfights and makeshift bombs have ravaged the city of Aleppo in the last two years. In a region where rebel groups continue to clash with the regime in a bloody struggle for control, getting food and medicine to civilians is a nearly impossible task for aid groups. But one thing Aleppo and other suffering communities in northern Syria have in their favor is the close proximity of the Turkish border. So close it is that one former US Air Force cargo pilot believes launching humanitarian drones from inside Turkey is the best chance of getting these people the help they need.

Mark Jacobsen started Uplift Aeronautics after conducting a research project on refugees of Syria's civil war in 2014. He has since teamed up with a group of military veterans, technologists and policy experts to develop a fleet of custom-built drones with the aim of completing regular round trips across the Turkish-Syrian border.

The star of the Syria Airlift Project is a fixed-wing UAV dubbed Waliid. Named so for a doctor Jacobsen met in Turkey who had many relatives claimed by the conflict, Waliid is capable of flying 30 km (18 mi), dropping off a 1 kg (2.2 lb) package and then returning to base. The thinking is that 10 or 15 of these drones will be queued up and flung across the border into Syria, creating a regular stream of airdropped packages for those in need.

A departure every five minutes could bring hundreds of pounds of cargo to hard-to-reach places. Jacobsen imagines loading them with valuable but lightweight items such as medical supplies, vitamins, tools for water purification and baby milk. Last year, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated the number of Syrians affected by the conflict and in need of assistance to be 10.8 million, almost half Syria's 22 million total population. Suffice to say, a handful of aid-carrying drones may be a drop in the ocean but, as they say, every bit helps.

As a proof of concept, Jacobsen and his team carried out an exercise in California last month where they trained Iraqi and Syrian families in how to operate the aircraft. This included preparing launch systems made from custom-built frames that position the aircraft for take off and connecting bungee ropes to propel them forward. The plan is to teach Syrian refugees to do this in eastern Turkey, empowering those that have fled to breath life and hope into their country.

The Syria Airlift Project has partnered with aid organizations based in the Middle East who will determine the targets for its airdrops. With long-established contacts in Syria, the thinking is that these parties will help them ensure both the supplies and the drones themselves don't end up in the hands of rebel groups.

But to get to this stage, the Syria Airlift Project needs considerable funding. Jacobsen has this week kicked off an Indiegogo campaign aiming to get US$50,000 together to build up his fleet and get it into action. At the time of writing he has raised more than $14,000 with 34 days left to run. If you want to get behind the effort, you can click through to the campaign here.

Eventually the team hopes to build drones capable of flying deeper into Syria to offer relief to people in other war-affected areas. It is currently developed a larger drone capable of flying 50 km (30 mi) with a payload of 2 kg (4.4 lb) and making a return trip.

You can check out the pitch video below.

View gallery - 9 images

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