Professor Uses Drones To Help Fellow Refugees

Mehdi Salehi grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and witnessed firsthand how drones can be used for destructive purposes.

Now, however, he lives in New York and is Adjunct Communications Professor at Adelphi University, having fled Afghanistan. Although he had previously seen the destructive use of drones, now he is using drones as a force for good.

Salehi is the founder of a company called “Drone Labs,” which deploys the technology to support humanitarian work. He explains:

“When I founded Drone Labs in 2014, most people only associated drones with the military, especially with what was going on in Middle East . . . We wanted to approach this new technology as something that can help people.”*

In 2016, Drone Labs launched “Drones for Refugees,” which is a project that monitors the hazardous plight of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. He further explains:

“We went to Greece and flew drones over refugee boats, sharing the real-time footage with search and rescue teams . . . If something went wrong, those teams knew exactly where to find the refugees and deliver help.”*

This project is personal for Salehi, since he was a refugee who fled his home on an extremely dangerous journey as an 18-year-old young man.

He shares:

“I went through the same story . . . I paddled through the sea on a small inflatable boat with a friend of mine, and we were close to dying. It was a tough experience, but I think it was very helpful in understanding different cultures and building who I am.”

Salehi landed in Greece, where he studied engineering in college. Ten years later, he moved to New York City, where he received his M.F.A. in Design and Technology from the Parsons School of Design.

“It’s interesting to look back at the puzzle of my life and see how things are moving towards the direction I was meant to follow,” he says. “As a kid, I was always interested in space and airplanes. And I’m still working towards what I love—flying.”*

This love for flying drones brought him to Adelphi University, where he has the opportunity to share his interest and affection for drone technology.

He loves teaching drone photography by helping students learn to take pictures from new perspectives, while exploring the artistic possibilities such a course offers. Students also learn how drone scanning can be used in various industries, such as surveillance, construction, agriculture, land surveying, engineering, scanning historical sites, and humanitarian work.

In addition, this course even provides support for students who want to study for the Federal Aviation Administration test to obtain their drone license for commercial operations.

“There are a lot of potential applications for engineers, archaeologists and many different industries,” he explained. “Drones are a great tool for creating 3D models, and from those models you can gain a lot of useful information.”*

As a man of vision and compassion, Salehi is raising funds for the next phase of “Drones for Refugees.” He is intent on building larger, longer-range drones, which have the capability of dropping medicine and emergency supplies.

He describes such a challenge:

“That’s something that I’m very excited about, but it’s not an easy task . . . If I can accomplish building that system, I think I will be a very happy person because of the overall impact it can have in the short and long run. I’ll feel like I’m giving back.”*

He is also exploring more ways that drones can be used for good, such as mapping disaster sites and using thermal cameras to find people trapped in wreckage from earthquakes or hurricanes to use drones to preserve, even save, lives.

Salehi wants to help students as much as he can by “transferring this knowledge to them [his students] and working with them to build skills that can help them in their careers.”* He is also hoping to expand the drone program at Adelphi, by adding more software and hardware for these drone capabilities.

He sees himself as being fortunate because he is having a part in “shaping the drone culture” that will only become stronger. But most of all, says Salehi, “We can make a difference by focusing on the human element.”*


As one of the few universities in the Northeast that is implementing drones into their curriculum, Adelphi University, is to be commended.

The hope is that there will be more universities, like Adelphi, which understand the importance that drone technology is playing in the present, and will also play in the future, but even more so.

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