The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched the first African humanitarian drone testing corridor in Malawi. The project is also the first of its kind globally due to its focus on humanitarian and development use.
The corridor, which is meant to test the effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be used in humanitarian emergencies and other development uses, was launched Thursday at Kasungu Aerodrome, some 100 km from Lilongwe, the capital.
“Drone technology has many potential applications…. One that we have already tested in Malawi is to transport infant blood samples to laboratories for HIV testing,” UNICEF Malawi Resident Representative Johannes Wedenig said in his address at the launch.
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The test corridor has a 40 km radius and focuses on three main areas: generating aerial images of crisis situations, extending Wi-Fi or mobile phone signals across difficult terrain during an emergency, and delivering low-weight emergency supplies.
Also speaking at the launch, Malawian Minister for Transport Jappie Mhango said the corridor will support transportation and data collection, where land transport infrastructure is either unfeasible or difficult during emergencies.
“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 drone testing corridor here in Malawi,” Mhango said.
“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.”
The UAV corridor, which is still in the early stages of development, will run for at least one year until June 2018. UNICEF is currently working with global partners and governments to explore how drones can be used in low-income countries.
“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,” said UNICEF Office of Global Innovation Principal Adviser Christopher Fabian.
The launch follows a successful pilot project in March 2016 also in Malawi on the feasibility of using drones to transport dried blood samples for early diagnosis of HIV in infants. The study proved that UAVs can be effectively used alongside other existing transport systems, including those used in the diagnosis of HIV.
During the recent floods in Lilongwe, Salima, and Karonga, UNICEF deployed drones to help the government of Malawi respond to the disaster by providing emergency responders with aerial footage of the affected areas for the deployment of the most effective evacuation procedures.
Malawi, a landlocked country, is one of the African states that have limited road access, with most of its roads turning into rivers whenever it rains.
The government now hopes to use UAVs to fly over the affected areas to assess the damage and deliver lightweight supplies like medicine to emergency victims.