Malawi Opens Up Air Corridor to Test Use of Drones in Humanitarian Missions

UN Drone
Courtesy UNICEF

Malawi, in conjunction with UNICEF, is the first African country to open up an 80 Kilometer air corridor that is designed to provide a controlled platform explore how drones can be used to help deliver humanitarian services.

This project, set in Kasungu Aerodrome in central Malawi, was launched after a successful pilot project in Malawi in March 2016, where drones were used to transport dried blood samples for the early infant diagnosis of HIV.

The country has also previously used drones as part of their flood response emergency services – the drones were used to provide aerial footage to help assess the needs of affected families.

According to UNICEF, the air corridor will facilitate testing in three main areas:
1. Imagery – generating and analyzing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes;
2. Connectivity – exploring the possibility for UAVs to extend Wi-Fi or cellphone signals across difficult terrain, particularly in emergencies;
3. Transport – delivery of small low weight supplies such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.

The air corridor will run until June 2018, and drones will only be allowed a maximum flight height of 400 meters above ground. All drones tested in the corridor will have to abide by the UNICEF innovation principles, meaning they have to be open source, open data, sharable, designed for scale.

Malawi now joins Rwanda which launched a commercial drone delivery service last year to deliver medical supplies.Other countries in Africa that are leading in the research of drones to address real-life challenges include South Africa and Mauritius.

What about Kenya?

About four years ago, a Swiss polytechnic approached the Kenyan government with a proposal of a drone delivery project dubbed “Flying  Donkey”. The project’s aim was to operate fixed-wing drones, carrying loads of up to 20 kg to sparsely populated and infrastructure poor northern Kenya to supplement the postal services.

Unfortunately, the Kenyan government saw this as a threat to security and the project never took off (no pun intended).

Well, at least in February this year, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority approved regulations that would allow the commercial use of drones in the country.