Drones for Peace in Syria

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Jessie Mooberry serves as the vice director for the Syria Airlift Project. She is a Quaker and a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh where she studied Finance and Chinese. 5

It is hard for the general public in the United States to connect to a crisis as catastrophic and brutal as the one devastating Syria. Four years have passed since the first Syrian “day of rage” protests.  Now, there are nearly 3.45 million Syrian refugees—half of whom are children—and 6.8 million internally displaced Syrians, from a population of 23 million. The people are desperate, trapped in crossfire while being denied medicine, food, and other basic rights.

The Syria Airlift Project–a group of volunteers comprised of Syrians, active U.S. military, pacifists, humanitarian lawyers, PhD engineers and many more–seeks to aid Syria’s  most desperate communities while empowering and bringing hope to the Syrian people. The project accomplishes these aims with the use of a tool traditionally used as a weapon.  Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones are designed by the project to deliver medicine, food, water purification technology, and other aid into besieged or hard-to-access areas.

UAVs, or drones, have traditionally been used for military intelligence or as weapons. However, many entrepreneurs are now using UAVs for peaceful and humanitarian purposes, including aerial filming, search and rescue, infrastructure inspection, forest fire detection, crisis mapping, and wildlife conservation. Most of these initiatives use UAVs as imagery platforms, but we see another possible application: delivering cargo where manned aircraft cannot safely, easily, or affordably, go.

The Syria Airlift Project’s small, fixed-wing UAVs can fly up to 50 km, drop small payloads by parachute, and return home safely.  No single UAV will carry more than 2 lbs, but like an army of ants, together they will move large volumes of aid in significant numbers. We aim to keep vehicle costs low, between $500 and $1000, making it feasible to operate large numbers of them and absorb the inevitable losses that will occur.

The project is currently in the research, development, and testing phase, and we hope to begin trials in the summer of 2015 on the Turkish-Syrian border. We believe that such airlift capability could make the world a better place: our first project will be in Syria, but we see further applications for long-distance transportation of crucial supplies, including rural medical deliveries and disaster relief.

Our focus on Syria is not without risk. The project must contend with important legal questions about violating state sovereignty, preventing theft or hoarding of our aid by malevolent groups, and securing our technology against hacking, theft, and misuse.

Our focus on Syria is not without risk. The project must contend with important legal questions about violating state sovereignty, preventing theft or hoarding of our aid by malevolent groups, and securing our technology against hacking, theft, and misuse. To research and address these concerns, we have turned to the United Nations, NGOs already working in Syria, and Syrians themselves for assistance, insight, and partnership.

Given the crimes perpetrated against innocent Syrians, we believe—along with the United Nations, as expressed in UNSCR 2139 and 2165—that such creative measures to deliver aid in Syria are warranted. To guarantee responsible use of our technology, we are designing safety features that will render the aircraft inoperable if they go down in Syria, so that Syrian fighting groups cannot reuse them for ill intent. Also, our existing and future partnerships will help guide our airdrops to distribution channels which will provide the most benefit to local hospitals, emergency responders, and trained humanitarian workers, ensuring the dropped goods reach those best equipped to handle them and utilize the skills and knowledge of existing humanitarian processes. Ultimately, we believe the potential value of this new paradigm for delivering aid far outweighs the risks.

We believe this project can empower Syrians and send a message of hope and reconciliation. We are coordinating with Syrian NGOs, such as the Syrian American Medical Society, and plan to employ Syrian refugees in Turkey to the maximum extent possible. Helping to organize humanitarian deliveries will provide these refugees with dignity, meaningful employment, and the opportunity to be a part of the rebuilding process.

With help from our partner organization Project Amal ou Salaam, we will ask Syrian refugee children to decorate our UAVs. Syrian engineers can help us design airdrop bundles, which will carry water filters to places with no potable water. Syrian women will be able to send letters of hope and love along with feminine hygiene kits. Teenagers will be able to send candy to their brothers and sisters still under siege, delivering moments of joy and assurances that the world has not forgotten them. Together, we will erode the legitimacy of groups that use starvation and medical deprivation as war tactics and empower those who seek to build a better future.

Airlifts have been used before to peacefully challenge aggression and empower goodwill. In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off all land and water access to the 2 million citizens of West Berlin, hoping to secure communist rule. The Berlin Airlift kept the city alive, rallying Berliners who wished to retain their freedom. The airlift made siege tactics impossible in Berlin, and more important, changed the tone of the Cold War. Later, when a German newspaper asked Berliners what they remembered about the airlift, submissions said: “The world respected us. The world was watching us. The world cared about us.”

We believe the world can once again use airlifts to diminish the power of those terrorizing innocent populations. We can demonstrate that we have not forgotten Syria’s most desperate populations by bringing Syrian refugees together and working with them on a project that provides dignity, hope for the future, and crucial aid for their brothers and sisters still within Syria. UAVs can be used for more than military applications. We wish to give the global community a chance to send hope to Syrians and build a technology with potential for use in many peaceful applications. While doing so, our paradigm for delivering aid can actively combat the abhorrent use of mass starvation and medical deprivation as weapons of war.

Jessie Mooberry serves as the vice director for the Syria Airlift Project. She is a Quaker and a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh where she studied Finance and Chinese.

(Feature Photo Credit: iHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation via Flickr)
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