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Afghan refugee makes drones to save drownings

With drones making news for all the wrong reasons in the recent times, Mehdi insists that the technology must be?used for saving lives. (Representative image) Photograph: (Getty)

WION New York, NY, United States Aug 24, 2016, 09.14 AM (IST)
Fifteen years after fleeing his home in Afghanistan to escape the Taliban, Mehdi Salehi is today working on a project to save the lives of drowning refugees.

The 33-year-old Afghan wants to help people like him survive the dangerous journey across the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

'Drones for Refugees' is a project designed to enable rescuers to swiftly locate and reach migrant boats in difficulty, cutting the time it otherwise takes to reach them.

The sea route between Turkey and the Greek Islands, which was a favourite among smugglers, saw heavy traffic post the Syrian conflict.

Salehi, now a lecturer at the Parsons School of Design in New York, saw images of many who did not make it through the seas and decided to do something about it.

With support from Parsons alumni and faculty, Mehdi and his partner Kristen Kersh bought and customised the drone tested on Lesbos. They added cameras, sensors, data-sharing points and designed a web platform.

Footage from the cameras and the infrared sensors can be streamed live to websites and mobile devices used by coastguards, search and rescue teams and merchant ships.

With drones making news for all the wrong reasons in the recent times, Mehdi insists that the technology must be used for saving lives.

"With the technology that we have today, people shouldn’t be dying at sea. When I crossed, we had to buy a paper map to find the closest point to Greece on the Turkish seashore," he tells AFP.

Esther Camps, Lesbos coordinator of Spanish lifeguard group Pro-Activa, says that the project could provide vital information on what rescuers need to expect ahead of time: "If they need medical assistance, the number of people on board, availability of life-jackets on them, can all be tracked," she says.

When Salehi crossed the Aegean from Turkey in 2001, he arrived on Chios island in Greece with a friend.

Salehi and his friend were arrested and thrown in jail for five months until a Greek doctor working for Amnesty International visited the
prison and Salehi asked her for help in filling out his Greek asylum application.

She found him a lawyer and he got his papers.

Better drones

Drones for Refugees plans to build bigger drones, able to fly over larger areas of the Mediterranean where the survival of refugees and migrants depends on being spotted and rescued by a ship.

The final prototype is likely to be ready by the end of this year, Salehi says.

Until now, the group has been funding itself but Salehi and his team will need more cash if they are to build larger drones with longer
flight autonomy.

After being granted asylum in Greece, Salehi obtained a master's degree in architecture from the University of Volos in 2011.

Moving to the United States, he received a second master's in design and technology from Parson's School of Design in New York.

(With inputs from agencies)
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