How do you deliver food and medicine to people in an area where a cargo plane would be shot down? It was a question that kept US Air Force pilot Mark Jacobsen awake at night after he met Syrian refugees in Turkey. Then he had an idea – a swarm of tiny drones, each delivering 1kg or 2kg at a time.
On an airfield in Sacramento a group of aircraft enthusiasts make noisy toy helicopters perform stunts in the air. US army vehicles sit nearby. It’s a baking hot California afternoon, everyone is wearing caps and chasing children to smear sun cream on them as they stare up at the sky.
But next to the regulars is another group, testing custom-built drones. They catapult them into the air at regular intervals and make them circle repeatedly for kilometre after kilometre.
There is something different about this crowd. Along with the drone-flying geeks and their computers are Syrian and Iraqi refugees, girls in hijabs and an injured man in a wheelchair, who has only recently landed in California from Iraq.
And then their aircraft are all in the same colours – red, black, green and white.
The reason? These drones are made to fly into Syria, carrying vital aid to people in towns and villages besieged and deliberately deprived of food and medicine by one or other of the warring groups.
It’s the deeply personal project of 33-year-old Mark Jacobsen, whose meeting with refugees in Turkey 13 months ago was nothing short of life-changing.
“What I experienced there is more real to me than almost anything else,” he says, pausing for a drink of water and to allow a choking wave of emotion to pass.
“I just think a lot of people go through their daily lives not really thinking about what they’re doing. And being over there and seeing this really epic struggle – doctors risking their lives to smuggle medical supplies, stories of people who were literally watching their children starve to death – coming back from that, nothing seemed important.”
The goal of this project is huge – “to end starvation and medical deprivation as weapons of war”. The concept of “swarming airlift”, if it works, is one that can potentially be used not only in Syria but anywhere a transport aircraft – such as the C-17 Jacobsen flies for the US Air Force – would be at risk from anti-aircraft fire.
Unlike a big expensive drone, these little drones would be barely worth shooting down – and if they were, they could be quickly and cheaply replaced.