Angels in the Sky: How Uplift Aeronautics and the Syria Airlift Project Plan to Save Lives in Syria

The SAP logo uses both the flag of the opposition and of the regime as a symbol of its neutrality. 


As the war in Syria and Iraq wages on with no end in sight, innocent civilians merely trying to survive and stay away from the fighting continue to be subject to violence, starvation, and death. Entire cities have been made unwilling participants in a war that they never wanted as various fighting factions besiege urban areas in a bid to claim further territory. The Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad has been notorious in its use of siege tactics, conducting horrific sieges of major urban centers like Homs and Aleppo, leaving complete ruin and thousands of starving and dying civilians to a horrible fate. Furthermore, the regime has often refused since the beginning of the conflict to let humanitarian agencies operate in areas held by the moderate opposition.

The horrific sieges and restrictions of humanitarian agencies have created a need for creative ways to get food and water and badly needed medical supplies into areas that are hard to reach. Brave Syrian activists often smuggle these badly needed supplies in themselves but being caught with something as simple as medicine could be a death sentence in certain areas. As a result, creative ways to bring food, water, and medicine are desperately needed. Enter the Syria Airlift Project (SAP) and its organization, Uplift Aeronautics.

The Syria Airlift Project was originally conceived in a small hostel room in Istanbul where a group of American and international students were taking a practice course on the Syrian conflict through George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution. Mark Jacobsen, the project’s founder whose day job is a US Air Force Major and C-17 cargo plane pilot, began discussing ideas with his hostel roommates (I’m proud to say that I was one of those roommates) on how to bring aid to the besieged cities of Syria. Many creative ideas were thrown around, such as the use of balloons, small dirigibles, and, of course, drones. One thing was clear, however, ground transport was simply not feasible given the security situation.

Following the trip and further brainstorming, Mark officially founded the Syria Airlift Project whose goal is to use small-sized and cheaply produced Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as drones, to deliver small packages of aid (1-2 kilograms) from a distance of between 30 and 50 kilometers depending on the weight of its aid package. The low cost of the craft (between 500 and 1,000 dollars) would enable for swarms of these UAVs to be cheaply produced and deployed, ensuring that large quantities of aid could be delivered despite the light payload of an individual UAV.

While drones are not new, they have had little usage thus far in the humanitarian context. As a result, the project quickly attracted interest from major stakeholders within the US government and the private sector who were interested in seeing drones used for the positive objectives of alleviating suffering through small airdrops of food, water, and medicine. In addition to attracting the support of humanitarians and policymakers alike, the project generated a lot of interest in the engineering and robotics communities. The SAP team continued to grow, which led to the founding of its parent organization, Uplift Aeronautics.

In late March, Uplift conducted its first ever field exercise over two days in Sacramento, CA, where they not only unveiled their specialized UAVs for the world to see, but they were able to successfully teach guests how to operate the craft and pack the cargo themselves. This last part is very important to the Uplift leadership. There is hope that, as an act of empowerment, that the craft can be piloted by Syrians themselves, under the supervision of Uplift operators, as a means to bring aid to their friends and families in cities under siege. On the final day of the exercise, Uplift Aeronautics did a public demonstration of the craft for locals and for a BBC film crew, successfully dropping air packages and candy to the gleeful children in the crowd, a reference to the Berlin airlift candy drops of the Cold War. The exercise was an important achievement for both Uplift as well as members of the audience, some of whom had recently been displaced by the fighting in Syria and Iraq. “I can imagine the happiness on the faces of the children,” said Ali, a Syrian present at the exercise in Sacramento. “Dropping aid from the sky and being able to have medicine, or eat. It’s just so, so beautiful.”

candy drop big
The SAP Candy Drop

While the project has been met with lots of enthusiasm and has been written about in various media outlets including the BBC, the Washington Post, and NPR, Uplift is very conscious that the use of drones can be unpopular and that there are some skeptics about the feasibility and security concerns of the project. To assuage these concerns, the Uplift team has developed certain strategies in order to avoid these issues. The UAVs would be launched from and then fly back to Turkey, never touching the ground in the whole process. Launching from Turkey prevents any reprisal attacks and helps Uplift retain control of the technology. Furthermore, the UAVs’ autopilot systems have a short-circuit mechanism to prevent the use of the drones and their technology for nefarious purposes should they ever crash-land or be shot down. Cryptographic keys are also being looked into in order to prevent the technology from being reproduced by just anyone.

Setting up the UAVs

Combatting the stigma of drones is another issue entirely. They have predominately been used by militaries as well as terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and ISIS as a means to conduct war and gather intelligence; civilian casualties by drone strikes have made them extremely unpopular. However, Uplift seeks to redefine drone use in a much more positive light. The way Mark Jacobsen and Uplift see it “The bad guys have [drones]. We want to give it to the good guys.”

With the conclusion of its Sacramento exercise, Uplift is now looking towards the next step of its Syria Airlift Project. It has launched a crowdfunding campaign to take its production and testing to the next level. Furthermore, it hopes to convince decision makers in both the United States and Turkey of the feasibility of the project and launch a pilot program this summer in Turkey. In a time where little good news seems to emerge from Syria (the death toll in the country was recently claimed to be as high as 220,000), one can hope that these little angels in the sky can be the lifeline that Syrian civilians need in this time of strife and conflict.

If you wish to learn more about the project, please visit Uplift Aeronautics and their Syria Airlift Page. If you wish to donate, please visit their Indiegogo Campaign.

All photos and logos were used with permission of Uplift Aeronautics.


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