In the central region of Malawi, a nation besieged by droughts and dangerous food shortages, unmanned aerial vehicles at the Kasungu Aerodrome are being loaded with emergency supplies to distribute across needy communities. These drones are airborne thanks to a collaboration between the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and the Government of Malawi.
According to a recent press release published by UNICEF, the initiative aims to make it easier for tech companies, humanitarian agencies, researchers, and government workers to distribute food, medicines, materials, and instruments over a radius that extends 40 kilometers. This project is the first of its kind for Africa, and it could be extended to other countries that are in need of immediate humanitarian efforts.
The initial phase of the project will involve testing. The drones will collect imagery that will be used by researchers to help them plan their missions; for example, a flooded area may prompt the immediate deployment of emergency workers for evacuation. Connectivity may also be extended to remote areas by means of wireless devices carried by the drones; this would facilitate communication. Transport and delivery of small emergency supplies such as medicines and water purification equipment is already underway; larger shipments of food supplies will be handled by larger aircraft and ground vehicles.
Communications providers from Malawi are involved in this effort along with tech firms from Greece and Sweden. UNICEF hopes that the success of this program can be transformed into a new humanitarian standard. In March 2016, UNICEF workers in Malawi successfully used drones to transport blood samples for HIV testing; in Rwanda, a foreign company has established a drone service to deliver pints of blood for transfusion as well as laboratory materials.
The testing period of the Malawi drone corridor could extend for another two years; tech developers are being invited to contribute to the project as long as they adhere to the principles promoted by UNICEF for the initiative, which means that collaborations should feature open source protocols that share data and that can also be scaled.
Other African nations are paying close attention to the Malawi drone corridor. In Nigeria, the online newspaper Signal published an opinion column urging aviation officials to revise their regulatory framework so that drones can fly missions that will benefit certain sectors of society. One of the problems in this regard is that some African countries are following drone developments in the United States, a country where the airspace is heavily regulated against drones. Australia, France, and now Malawi, are much better examples to emulate.
Photo Credits: © UNICEF/UN070530/Brown