Efforts to deploy drones for humanitarian purposes are hampered by public fears

America Abroad
Taped-Nose Drone

Mark Jacobsen leads me through a maze of children's toys in his little apartment a few miles from Stanford University. We head to a small patio out back. And here, sitting on folding tables, within earshot of kids playing and mothers pushing strollers, are the technological wonders that could save the lives of thousands of Syrian people.

This is the home of Uplift Aeronautics and the Syria Airlift Project.

Besides being a Ph.D. student, Jacobsen is also an active air force officer. During a stint in eastern Turkey, he was frustrated at the inability to get aid into Syrian villages and neighborhoods that were cut off by either the government or rebels.

“That got me thinking that maybe if you can’t get a big airplane in, you could get a lot of little airplanes in ... a totally different paradigm for air-dropping aid,” he says.

Jacobsen shows me a couple of planes and how he can control them from his laptop. One plane is so small and light it can be launched by hand. Another is nicknamed Waliid, for a Syrian doctor Jacobsen met, who would rush to the sound of attacks to go help people.

With 10 drones flying all night, he estimates they could deliver 400 pounds of high-value, low-mass aid.

“There are people who’ve died in Syria because they can’t get insulin. There’ve been hospitals having to reuse blood bags because they can’t get clean ones. During the Nepal earthquake, we had someone call us that was asking for help delivering water purifiers to isolated villages they couldn’t get to,” he says. “I don’t think two pound packages are going to apply for everybody, but in certain specific cases, two pounds can mean the difference between life or death.”

Jacobsen has developed strategies to keep the bad guys from hacking in and controlling the drones. And he’s lowered the cost of each one down to about $500. After running some test flights and raising almost $40,000 in an online crowdfunding campaign, Jacobsen was hoping he’d be delivering aid to Syria by the summer of 2015. But as winter approaches, these prototype UAVs sit on his back patio, waiting for funding, partners and Turkish government approval.

“The whole idea of using drones in conflict zones has been controversial because of their legacy as weapons,” he says. “There’s a lot of skepticism and distrust among aid organizations.”

That skepticism isn’t limited to aid organizations, or even to conflict zones in the Middle East. Even in California there's an ongoing debate about drone surveillance and safety.

Back in 2013, a small group gathered outside a board of supervisors meeting in Alameda County, about an hour north of Stanford. Nadia Kayyali was one of a dozen people standing under a 10-foot long model of a predator drone.

“Alameda County Against Drones believes that the potential concerns with drones are too great to justify any use of drones at all in Alameda County. The potential payoff is miniscule compared to the potential abuse of civil liberties and privacy,” she said.

Inside, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern was facing a larger group of concerned citizens, defending his intent to spend $31,000 on a drone for search and rescue operations, and other emergencies. He promised the department would never put weapons on their drone, but Michael Rubin with the local Green Party wasn’t convinced.

“What I hear is that law enforcement is asking us to trust them. And frankly I believe that the level of trust required to embark on this is totally absent with large parts of the community,” he said.

On that day, the drone opponents had their way. The county government refused permission for the purchase. It’s just one of many examples of Americans pushing back against drones. More than a dozen states restrict drone use, and many cities and counties have passed their own drone bans or restrictions.

“There is going to be a great deal of public resistance to the use of UAVs, even in the case of humanitarian aid, because it's an unknown technology,” says Terry Miethe, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He’s part of a team of researchers who’ve been studying public perceptions of drones. In a 2014 survey, they found 93 percent of adults are opposed to the use of drones to monitor people’s daily activities. Less than half support the use of drones for monitoring criminal activity in public places, and only a third think governmental use of drones increases personal safety at all.

“There needs to be a citizen buy-in to any kind of technology, and I think that's the important sociological question: How do you get buy-in [for a] technology that has been used in military operations, and a technology that has enormous potential, but also some kind of scary consequences?” Miethe says.

Joel Lieberman, chair of UNLV’s criminal justice department, says a major event involving drones could be a game changer.

“You can think about Hurricane Katrina, or a similar situation, where a river floods and people are cut off, and they're unable to get food and medical supplies, and the cavalry appears in the form of drones flying across that river and into the flooded areas and delivering those packages, and people seeing the good that can result from drone use. I think that really will shift public opinion,” he says.

Jacobsen says his Syria Airlift Project could greatly benefit from some clarity from the government. Commercial operators like him have been waiting years for regulations from Congress.

“The biggest problem right now is there are no legal standards or rules for how drones should be used, and in that vacuum, a lot of bad stuff is happening. There’s not agreement over who can use them, where they can fly them, [and] that’s feeding the public distrust of drones,” he says. “So we’re all kind of working in a vacuum.”

For now, Jacobsen sits frustrated, while hundreds of Syrians die every week.

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