Unicef has joined forces with the government of Malawi to set up an air corridor to test humanitarian drone applications.
Some 80km of air space surrounding the Kasungu Aerodrome in central Malawi will now be used as a controlled platform for private sector and university researchers to explore how UAVs can be used to help deliver services in emergency situations.
The airspace around Kasungo will be open until June 2018. So far, 12 companies, universities and NGOs have applied to use what is one of the only opportunities for real-life drone application testing in the world.
The focus of the testing will be on three separate applications: medical supply delivery, aerial imagery and connectivity. The people of Malawi have suffered from devastating floods in recent years. Drones could offer communities and emergency responders support during and after crises.
Cheaper and faster to deploy than a helicopter, a drone can survey flood damage and provide situation reports from above. Recent tests by Facebook and Verizon have also shown that unmanned aerial vehicles can replace downed communications infrastructure, getting areas hit by natural disasters back online and reconnecting first responders to the people who need them most.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the project will allow for real-world testing of aerial delivery. Despite the hype surrounding retailers such as Amazon, on-demand emergency medical supplies are perhaps the most realistic application of drone technology. Vaccines, laboratory samples and bloods could all be dropped into cut off disaster zones at a moment’s notice.
“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,” said Unicef’s Malawi representative Johannes Wedenig.
“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.”
Africa leading the way
And it’s borne out of necessity. Malawi is following in the footsteps of African neighbours Rwanda and turning to drones for a solution to the lack of infrastructure costing lives on a daily basis. Successful medical deliveries have been carried out in Rwanda by Silicon Valley start-up Zipline for the past year.
“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,” said Malawi’s minister of transport and public works, Jappie Mhango.
“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 sees development potential
Unicef is exploring potential applications of drone technology around the world, particularly in low-income countries.
“This humanitarian drone testing corridor can significantly improve our efficiency and ability to deliver services to the world’s most vulnerable children,” said Christian Fabian, principal adviser in Unicef’s Office of Global Innovation.
“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.”