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Drone airlift project hopes to supply beleaguered Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee camp at Zahle on Nov. 18. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)
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When Maj. Mark Jacobsen visited the Turkey-Syria border with the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies last year, he toured some of the Syrian refugee camps that, in the midst of a punishing civil war, had turned into small cities. Jacobsen didn’t see just a humanitarian crisis — he saw siege warfare.

About 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the Syrian civil war, according to the Migration Policy Center. While many live in refugee camps in neighboring countries including Turkey and Jordan, a vast number are displaced within Syria itself. For those trapped in their own country, supplies are increasingly hard to come by as both President Bashar al-Assad’s military and groups such as the al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State restrict access to basic amenities in attempts to erode the morale of their enemies.

“It’s the 21st century,” said Jacobsen, a former Air Force C-17 transport pilot. “Starvation shouldn’t be able to be used as a weapon.”

Jacobsen returned to the United States in March determined to find a way to help, even if the notion of flying U.S. Air Force aircraft into Syria was out of the question. He and a small team came up with an alternative: mass-produced, dog-sized drones. Their effort would be called the Syrian Airlift Project.

“After looking at a bunch of different things from quadcopters to catapults, we decided the best way to do it would be with cheaply made small airplanes that could carry a few pounds,” Jacobsen said. “Their size could help them evade radar and, with enough numbers, they could move a decent amount of material.”

The project is described this way in a video organizers released:

Given the low cost of production, Jacobsen added, it wouldn’t matter if the drones were shot down, and since they would be easy to build, refugees themselves could help with the project.

“We envisioned Syrians themselves building these things in Turkey,” Jacobsen said. “It would be a very nonviolent project with a lot of symbolism of Syrians working together to help bring medical supplies and food back into their country.”

Over the summer, Jacobsen quietly drummed up support for the project while working on some of the software necessary to pilot the drones. And after starting as a doctoral student at Stanford University in the fall, Jacobsen gave the first public presentation on the project at the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum last month. The project took first prize and $5,000 dollars worth of seed money.

“He brought in a video and one of his [drone] mock-ups and gave a talk and it was by far the best one,” said DEF organizer, Army Maj. Nate Finney.

The DEF forum is meant to be an informal gathering where military leaders can discuss issues within in their respective services without the formal constraints usually associated with the military’s bureaucracy.

It “tries to provide a space to develop and employ their innovative ideas and the things they’d like to change in their service,” Finney said.

In addition to winning the unanimous support of a panel of judges, the airlift project won 80 percent of the conference’s popular vote.

“We’ve had a ton of interest since DEF, including the State Department, strategic consulting groups and aerospace companies,” Jacobsen said, adding that the project was discussed at a U.N. meeting on drones last week as well.

As 2015 approaches, Jacobsen hopes to be able to showcase the aircraft and software in January and then start trials in Turkey.

“We need to get some stakeholders on board, including the Turkish government and U.S. government and hopefully win some support and permissions,” Jacobsen said. “And then well, hopefully we’ll be flying into Syria.”