On March 16, barrels of chlorine gas rained down on the town of Sarmin in northern Syria, killing six and wounding many more — just one of many horrific chemical attacks in the civil war that has consumed the country.
“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 a neighboring country 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 to fly and repair the drones. Its first destination would be Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The war has hit it hard. Hunger and disease are common.
The drones would take about a half hour to fly to Aleppo. Instead of touching down, they would drop their cargo in a small box attached to a parachute. Then they would return. Back at the launch base, the location of which would likely shift from day to day, volunteers could switch out their battery, load new cargo, and launch again within minutes.
Flying anything, let alone hundreds of drones, into a country without permission is a breach of international law. Current sanctions bar sending U.S. goods into the country. In extreme times like these, exceptions can be granted, but they depend on various government channels.
Jacobsen isn’t exactly sure how Uplift will secure an OK from the U.S., though he has initiated conversations with officials. The drones will likely have to be approved by the U.S. Treasury and international agreements, and will need to comply with arms regulations and counter-terrorism laws.
The local approval process could also be messy. Uplift will need to schedule audiences with the governments in countries bordering Syria, such as Turkey or Jordan. They will need to prove that the drones will be safe and beneficial. The recent election in Turkey, and the country’s air strikes within Syria, add a new layer of complexity.
“In some ways, negotiating with the armed groups and the people inside Syria is easier than the Turkish governments,” Ghosh-Siminoff says. “It’s really difficult to navigate that bureaucracy and know you’re in the clear and not running afoul of some archaic rule.”
Inside Syria, it’s actually the groups fighting Assad that would be most likely to shoot down a drone. Currently, it’s the resistance that occupies the ground between Uplift’s launch site and Aleppo. But if Uplift can demonstrate the planes are for aid, and will not interfere with the opposition’s efforts, Ghosh-Siminoff said there should not be a problem convincing the locals to let them pass.
In a country strapped for resources, a scenario could arise where troops start capturing drones to use for their own purposes. Uplift thought of that. The drones are equipped with a self-destruct device designed to fry their navigation system if they fly too close to the ground anywhere but at the launch site. Any drone that gets too low will never be remotely pilotable again.
“We’re not planning to talk to them at all once they leave the takeoff area,” says Jacobsen. “Routes will be pre-programmed. Our custom firmware on the plane actually plugs its ears and stops listening to incoming messages while in Syrian airspace, which should make it considerably harder to hack.”
On a hot, cloudless day in April, Jacobsen and four volunteers gathered at Stanford University’s Lake Lagunita. Engineer Michael Taylor, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, led two other volunteers through setting up the drone launcher on the lake bed, which has become a grassy field thanks to California’s drought.
On a porch overlooking the lake, Jacobsen assembled and tested the “Waliid” drone. He ran new volunteer Stuart Ginn, a medical resident still clad in scrubs, through the plane’s software and pre-flight protocol.
Made of foam and held together by tape, the drone is not visually impressive. It’s shaped like a plane, as opposed to the quadcopters that have taken over the consumer market, which allows it to fly for an hour instead of minutes. Its wingspan measures 5′ 7″ and is decorated in black, green, and red — the colors of the Syrian flag.
A Guide to Drones from the Syria Airlift Project
Guide photos courtesy of Uplift Aeronautics
Back in the field, Taylor and aeronautics and astronautics Ph.D. student Heather Kline had completed the launcher — a 7-foot-long PVC pipe skeleton that guides the drone into the air. Tomoki Eto, a mechanical engineering undergraduate and experienced drone pilot, anchors a bungee line to the ground several hundred feet away, stretches it to the launcher, and attaches it. Upon release, the bungee will fling the UAV into the air.
The team consists of five volunteers, but expands to 15 or 50 people, depending on how you look at it. The engineering core resides at Stanford, but people all over the world are contributing to its design and deployment. It’s been an informal collaboration via email, Skype, and Dropbox, but Uplift plans to release as much open-source material as possible, probably via Github.
Like many of the volunteers, lead engineer Brandon Fetroe got involved with the project after hearing about it through Stanford’s UAV club. While the technical hurdles felt manageable to him as an engineer, he says, its political challenges were things “many Americans didn’t feel capable of tackling on our own.”
“The project made it clear from the start that each individual person who was interested in helping out has the opportunity to contribute in ways that match their skill set and that together, as a whole, the team could do things that the individual on their own certainly can’t,” Fetroe says.
Fetroe, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, has been flying R/C planes since he was 12. He described his expertise as a little bit of everything — something that holds true throughout the Uplift team. Ginn, for example, was once a commercial pilot; he’s now helping reach out to medical NGOs. And Jacobsen is leveraging his international contacts and friends in the U.S. government from his days in the Air Force.
Interest in using drones for deliveries is high around the world. Syria is just one of many regions where broken infrastructure can make supplies impossible to deliver by land. Drones are already busy monitoring poachers and providing aerial intelligence in disaster situations.
But Jacobsen didn’t relate the Syria Airlift Project to any of those efforts. Instead, he looked back much further, to the Cold War when the Western Allies airlifted supplies into West Berlin. U.S. Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen started a movement when he began dropping candy attached to handkerchief parachutes for children. Like the Candy Bomber, as Halvorsen became known, the drones could drop symbols of hope and happiness.
“People inside Syria affiliate airplanes with death. There are no positive memories of an airplane anymore,” Ghosh-Siminoff says. “It would be nice to see a positive example of when a plane came to help them instead of to kill them. It would make them feel like they’re not alone, that the world didn’t forget them, and that there’s still someone out there trying to help them.”
With all the parts prepped, the group clusters around the launcher on the lake bed. The Waliid sits on top of two metal rails that will guide it out and up while the bungee accelerates it forward.
The final verbal checks ring out while a small crowd forms to watch.
“Clear!” Jacobsen shouts.
The launcher releases and the drone springs forward. The bungee falls away as it coasts up and begins flying rectangles over Lake Lagunita.
Uplift flies its planes with software built by 3D Robotics. Jacobsen also runs a custom program that measures the plane’s energy consumption at different flying speeds. Every so often, the Waliid increases its speed by 2 miles per hour, gradually moving from 28 to 50 miles per hour.
If Uplift begins sending drones into Syria, it will run another custom program. An app called Swarmify can take a single flight plan and turn it into as many semi-randomized flight paths as the team needs.
“Because every flight plan is slightly different, it ensures planes don’t collide with each other,” Jacobsen says. “It also gives you tactical survivability, because no two planes cross the same point on the ground. If somebody sees the first plane fly over, they won’t catch the next one.”
Much of the drone itself is made from off-the-shelf and open-source components. While Uplift could someday manufacture its own drones, right now it works with inexpensive hobby kits. This choice has its roots in the organization’s origins, when Jacobsen had to teach himself the basics of building and programming a drone and fund the project inexpensively.
But even as Uplift’s volunteer ranks grew, it kept building its own drones. It turns out that there isn’t much of an alternative.
“When we looked at different airframes, one thing became immediately clear: The market is really polarized as far as cost and capability is concerned,” Fetroe says. “If you tried to put all the planes in a line, and had the tiniest, cheapest one on one end, and some huge commercial or military drone on the other end, you notice there’s a really big gap in the middle, kind of where we are trying to operate.”
Drones that can carry more than a few pounds of cargo for an hour and cost, say, $1,000, didn’t exist. Fetroe said new options are emerging, but most have yet to officially hit the market. For now, Uplift will carry on with its own design.
The project’s current hangar of vehicles cost between $500 and $1,000 to build. The Waliid is actually the $100 Talon kit made by X-UAV. Its autopilot system is built by 3D Robotics. Its motors, props, and servos were all picked for their modest price, and can be found on Hobby King.
In its belly sits the real value — the payload. A wooden box, laser cut by Fetroe, opens to release its cargo. It floats to Earth strapped to a parachute made from garbage bags, or whatever other cheap plastic is available.
Whether or not the Syria Airlift Project succeeds, Uplift sees a future for its drones. What will start with just a few flights this summer could scale to hundreds or thousands of planes that can feed entire neighborhoods. Even just a handful of planes can make rural medical deliveries and bring aid to disaster-stricken regions where the political situation is more welcoming.
“My long term goal is to help build a world where the use of starvation and medical deprivation are impossible — they just don’t work anymore; you can always find a way to get humanitarian aid through. That’s a lifelong ambition,” Jacobsen said. “If we can get the first steps done, we can scale from there.”
Photos: Hep Svadja
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect Uplift Aeronautics’ change in focus from Turkey to other countries bordering Syria.