Africa is ground zero for the use of humanitarian drones and medical drone delivery – and with innovative programs and the development of a humanitarian drone corridor, UNICEF’s drone projects in Malawi have become a model for the rest of the world.
Matthias Boyen of UNICEF explains that drones solve critical problems for the people of Malawi. The country suffers from HIV prevalence of 10%, with 1.2 million infected. 40,0000 children are born to an HIV+mother every year – and these children need to be tested within 6 weeks to begin treatment and have the opportunity for a positive outcome.
A dispersed and remote population combined with a lack of transportation infrastructure makes that 6 week window a major challenge for healthcare providers. Traditionally transported by motorbike, samples and testing materials can take 23 days to deliver. A UNICEF project using Matternet drones for delivery, can reduce that timeframe to mere hours.
One of the keys to UNICEF’s success is the humanitarian drone corridor developed in collaboration with Malawi’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA.) With a maximum altitude of 400 meters and a maximum distance of 80 km, the corridor was developed as a fast way to meet safety requirements for testing drones. The project is designed specifically for – and limited to – the testing of humanitarian drones: since the corridor’s announcement at the end of 2016, 12 companies have applied for use of the corridor. And from delivery and transport to disaster preparedness and response, drones are offering significant value in Malawi.
Boyen’s team is using drones for both disaster preparedness and disaster response. Flying an Inspire 2 to take imagery and video, they’re creating large scale detailed preparedness maps. With those preparedness maps, accurately showing the terrain before an event, teams can compare images taken after a disaster to quickly identify problems. Sophisticated flood modeling and aerial images of wells and water sources are elements of the preparedness plan.
When taking images for disaster response, says Boyen, “it’s really improvisational… we always try to engage the community.” That engagement is not just good PR, but the involvement of local communities helps to guide missions to be more effective. ” We have 3 screens, one just for the community to watch – they tell us where to go,” Boyen explains.
While the government in Malawi has offered significant support for the UNICEF project, getting community support requires education. Boyen’s team travels into communities with the country’s ministry of education to explain what drones are used for – and the community has received the drones, and the data showing their homes and environment, with enthusiasm.
So far, UNICEF’s tests in Malawi have seen success – solving real problems and offering valuable tools. In the next step that countries around the world might model, the team will participate in a disaster response simulation – a test of the ability of the team to deliver actionable information for effective response. During the simulation, all of the drones available in the country will fly and pass off data for analysis; a coordinating body will send relevant data to response teams including the CAA and Malawi Defense force.
The drone corridor is a concept that won’t work everywhere – Malawi chose a remote area with a light population and low air traffic. But it is being replicated in other countries anxious to get drone programs off the ground. And the lessons learned on the ground in Malawi about community involvement and disaster response create a use case that can be replicated across the globe.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.