The Government of Malawi and UNICEF launched an air corridor on 28 June intended to test potential humanitarian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. The corridor is the first in Africa with a focus on humanitarian and development use, said UNICEF.
The project is centred on Kasungu Aerodrome, in central Malawi, with a 40-km (25-mile) radius and is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities and other partners to explore how UAVs can be used to help deliver services that will benefit communities.
Malawi Minister of Transport and Public Works, Jappie Mhango explained: “Malawi has, over the years, proved to be a leader in innovation, and it is this openness to innovation that has led to the establishment of Africa’s first drones testing corridor here in Malawi. We have already used drones as part of our flood response and we can see the potential for further uses, such as transportation of medical supplies, which could transform lives in remote rural communities.”
UNICEF said the Humanitarian UAV Testing Corridor will facilitate testing in three main areas: imagery – generating and analysing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes; connectivity – exploring the possibility for UAVs to extend Wi-Fi or cellphone signals across difficult terrain, particularly in emergencies; transport – delivery of small low-weight packages such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.
The UAV corridor will run at least until June 2018. Since the project was announced in December 2016, 12 companies, universities and NGOs from around the world have applied to use the corridor, said UNICEF. This includes drone manufacturers, operators and telecom companies such as: GLOBHE (Sweden) in collaboration with HemoCue and UCANDRONE (Greece), and Precision (Malawi), all of which were present at the launch to demonstrate connectivity, transportation and imagery uses respectively.
UNICEF Office of Global Innovation Principal adviser Christopher Fabian said: “This humanitarian drone testing corridor can significantly improve our efficiency and ability to deliver services to the world's most vulnerable children. The success of these trials will depend on working in new ways with the private sector, government and local entrepreneurs and engineers who can ensure that technologies deliver appropriate solutions for the people who need them the most.”
UNICEF said it is working with a number of governments and private sector partners around the world to explore how UAVs can be used in low-income countries. The projects have a strict set of innovation principles, with a focus on open source and user-centred design.
The launch of the UAV testing corridor follows a pilot project in Malawi in March 2016 on the feasibility of using drones for the transportation of dried blood samples for early infant diagnosis of HIV. This study showed that UAVs are a viable addition to existing transport systems, said UNICEF, including those used to help with the diagnosis of HIV.
UNICEF has also deployed drones to support the Government of Malawi’s response to recent floods. UAV flights went out in Salima, Lilongwe and Karonga between February and April 2017 to provide aerial footage to help assess the needs of affected families. The aim of the flights was to conduct faster, more efficient and cost-effective assessments of the situation of communities and families. UNICEF said it is also exploring the potential for drones to be used to support immediate search and rescue efforts.
UNICEF Malawi representative Johannes Wedenig commented: “Malawi has limited road access to rural areas even at the best of times, and after a flash flood earth roads can turn to rivers, completely cutting off affected communities. With UAVs, we can easily fly over the affected area and see clearly what the impact has been on the ground. This is cheaper and better resolution than satellite images.”
The air corridor details were determined in consultation with the Malawi Department of Civil Aviation and in line with the government’s new regulatory framework, noted UNICEF. The specifications include an altitude limit of 400 m (1,300 ft) above ground. All UAV projects tested in the corridor are to abide by the UNICEF innovation principles: open source, open data, sharable, designed for scale.
Companies and individuals can register their interest in using the testing corridor by completing an online form here: http://bit.ly/2hh9MOT.