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Chester County Press

In the company of drones

06/17/2015 10:55AM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

Twenty-three-year-old Jessie Mooberry of Unionville could be on Easy Street now.

In 2013, she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh -- in three years -- as a double major in Finance and Chinese. She studied in China for a semester, as well as at the prestigious London School of Economics. A natural entrepreneur, she began two start-up businesses while still in college. She's been offered jobs since graduation, and it would be so logical to see her in the cocoon of corporate finance, ascending a ladder that she herself has built.

Yet logic, for all of its sharp angles and proper way of things, is myopic. It is blind to off-the-grid thinking. It is incapable of holding in its grip anything that exists outside of the framework of step-by-step order. Logic is normal and it is right and it makes sense, but in the life of Jessie Mooberry -- when it comes down to whether or not to choose a professional career over a calling that she believes will help save the world -- Logic is a cage. She is 23 years old, and instead of pursuing the Great American Cubicle, she is working up to 60 hours a week -- as a volunteer, for no pay in an attempt to someday execute missions intended to save human lives.

Since last fall, Mooberry has served as the vice director of Uplift Aeronautics, a world-wide consortium of 70 volunteers who are in the planning stages of what is being called the Syria Airlift Project, which will ultimately be able to deliver humanitarian aid to the people of that war-torn nation through the use of drones. The organization's paradigm is based on using large numbers of micro-UAVs to deliver small packets of cargo through airspace thought to be too dangerous for manned aircraft.

"I wouldn't see this as putting my life on hold," Mooberry said. "I look at this as truly living my life. I'm 23, and that's what being 23 is all about. I am continuing to learn and grow every single day. I've had job offers, but I'm learning so much more here, and after I've spent a few years helping to build this organization, I'll be prepared to do whatever I want to do."

As part of her job, Mooberry works side-by-side with engineers from Stanford University, law students from Harvard University, as well as the United Nations, organization partners and management teams in Syria, Germany and Australia, and the United Nations. She is a regular speaker at conferences throughout the world, including New York City, California and Cyprus. She is speaking weekly with the United Nations, who is looking to find partnerships.

The project is the result of a research trip Mark Jacobsen, a major in the U.S. Air Force and a Middle East specialist, took to southeast Turkey in 2014. There, he interviewed Syrian refugees and activists. He toured refugee camps, which have been established since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 in neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

"The refugees kept asking Mark, 'You're a pilot. Can't you deliver us food and materials?'" Mooberry said. "He told them, 'No, for two reasons. One, for political reasons. Two, we may be shot down.' The entire project and organization has stemmed from those meetings, which are to develop alternative methods of reaching these people with food and supplies."

As of 2014, three million Syrians have fled their country, and now live in refugee camps, in countries around Syria. Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by soldiers who will kidnap young men to fight for the regime.

Mooberry joins United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in calling Syria, "the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time."

"Half of the people no longer have homes, are either internally displaced within the country or refugees in other countries," she said. "We're in the fifth year of the Civil War, and you ask the global public, and they're numb to what's going on there. We're removed from it, which doesn't make it any less important. The Syrian people are losing hope as well."

Mooberry met Jacobsen at a Department of Defense conference last October in Washington, D.C. A pacifist and a life-long Quaker, Mooberry gave a presentation about about how technology can be used to solve conflict with out violence. Jacobsen was there pitching an idea about using drones to deliver food and aid to Syrian refugees. He told her about the drones, and although she expressed mild interest in Jacobsen's project, Mooberry didn't know a thing about drones. Jacobsen told her he needed passionate people to help him fully launch the concept. Mooberry told him that she could give him ten hours a week of her time. He told her to stick around for his presentation.

Then Jacobsen got up on stage and began to talk about drones that he spoke about have a five to six-feet wingspan, and have the capability of flying as far as 130 kilometers at a stretch, and be able to drop one kilogram of humanitarian aid. The concept of the project would be to launch a drone every three to five minutes, in the dead of night, he said. Each drone would fly a distance of 65 kilometers, drop the humanitarian aid, turn around and return to its take-off destination.

The presentation was all Mooberry needed. Nine months later, she is helping to spearhead a campaign by Uplift Aeronautics to raise at least $50,000 to support a pilot project in Turkey this summer, and to continue researching and developing concepts for delivering humanitarian aid in otherwise unreachable places.

Mooberry grew up on farm in Unionville. She calls it a care-free childhood, filled with trees to climb and free of television, and guided by the firm underfoot of the Quaker religion, the influence of her four grandparents, and the guidance of her parents. She spent two years at Unionville High School, but the last two years of high school were spent at a Quaker boarding school north of Philadelphia.

"With Jessie coming from a Quaker background, and having gone to a Quaker boarding school, she was exposed to different kids form all over the world, and she took to learning about where they came from," said her father, Doug, a cabinet maker. "From the time she was very little, she always wanted to help people. Too often, it is very hard to see how your contribution improves the world, but Jessie isn't concerned with that. She wants to do something that helps the people that no one seems to cares about, those who need medicine, food and hope.

"These people need to know that there is someone else in the world trying to help them," he said. "That's what Jessie's role is. To be that someone."

If the Syria Airlift Project is ever to be launched, there will be no American flags painted on the sides of the drones, nor the flag of any other country. Rather, if Mooberry and the Uplift Aeronautics team have their way, the drones will be decorated by Syrian children. Were this idea developed for anything other than to distribute humanitarian aid, the team could easily commercialize the concept and make millions off of it, and in fact, during the team's conversations with world officials, many do not understand why Uplift Aeronautics wanted to use these drones purely for humanitarian purposes.

As the Uplift Aeronautics team continue to navigate their concept through a world sliced up according to ideologies and divided by borders -- fighting for both funding and legitimacy -- it comes down to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people, sitting in refugee camps, looking toward the skies for signs of hope.

"It's something worth fighting for," Mooberry said. "For me, it's about the next generation. Our idea is to empower the local communities, to train them to use this technology so that when we leave, they will have the opportunity to do this on their own.

"We're trying to change the entire humanitarian paradigm by delivering aid, instead of risking human lives by having drivers take materials through battle lines, or through helicopters," Mooberry added. "Here, this way, the biggest loss would be the loss of a thousand-dollar drone. This is untested technology. This is new. This is scary. This is big, and this could change everything."