01 May 2019
Malawi reached its very own aviation milestone in January 2018. A team from Virginia Tech in the US supervised a fully autonomous, 19km simulated drug delivery flight in a drone designed at the university and built by Malawian students.
The aircraft, EcoSoar, was designed at the Unmanned Systems Lab for it to be fabricated and operated in Malawi for remote medicine delivery.
EcoSoar flew in the drone testing corridor in Kasungu, which was opened by the Malawi government, in conjunction with the UN’s children’s agency Unicef, in June 2017. The corridor was designed to explore the impact of drone applications in emergency supply delivery, vaccines, sample delivery for diagnosis and remote sensing.
Across a two-day workshop, Kevin Kochersberger, Zack Standridge and James Donnelly from Virginia Tech coached 13 students from Malawian universities through the construction of the aircraft that is made of foam core (poster board) and 3D printed parts to facilitate local production to keep costs to a minimum.
The corridor is the first of its kind in Africa and allows for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) testing in a territory over 5,000km² and up to 400 metres above ground level. It is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities and other partners to explore how drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), can help deliver services that benefit communities and schools.
“This humanitarian drone testing corridor can significantly improve our efficiency and ability to deliver services to the world’s most vulnerable children,” says Christopher Fabian, Unicef office of global innovation principal adviser.
This corridor is now used for to provide humanitarian assistance, including vaccinations. Early in the morning, health worker Amidu Malope holds his regular clinic for children under five-years-old, in the shade of some trees on the edge of the village. He arrives by bicycle and sets up an outdoor consultation area: a wooden table with benches and a box full of drugs, malaria test kits and other medical supplies. His waiting room is a mat on the dusty ground, which by 8am is already full of waiting mothers and children.
Regular deliveries by drone will allow Amidue to vaccinate children on schedule, as opposed to once a month. Connectivity drops will allow him to inform the district hospital of urgent medical cases and arrange transportation. What’s more, aerial mapping could help him create an accurate map of the villages in his area, along with water sources and other relevant information.
Global businesses that participate in the corridor are required to spend time training and working with local students, engineers and entrepreneurs. They are also required to share skills and best practices. “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,”
Unicef Malawi representative Johannes Wedenig adds: “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”.
Now, with the help of telemedicine, care is given to the poorest and hardest to reach families in Malawi. The choice of location for the corridor allows companies to test drones in a rural setting with a variety of landscape and several remote areas, where health clinics and schools struggle with transportation and mobile reception.
Unicef is also exploring the potential for drones to be used to support immediate search and rescue efforts.