Malawi, UNICEF establishess first humanitarian drone testing corridor in Africa

Malawi government and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF)  on Thursday announced the establishment of an air corridor to test potential humanitarian use of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) also known as drones.

Children in Malawi watch a community drone demonstration in Lilongwe

The corridor is the first in Africa and one of the first globally with a focus on humanitarian and development use. It will run for a maximum distance of 40 km and become fully operational by April 2017.

It is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities, and other partners to explore how UAS can be used to help deliver services that will benefit communities.

“Malawi has over the past years faced serious droughts and flooding,” Malawi’s Minister of Transport and Public Works, Jappie Mhango said. “The launch of the UAS testing corridor is particularly important to support transportation and data collection where land transport infrastructure is either not feasible or difficult during emergencies.”

Malawi government has embarked on formulating a regulatory framework to embrace safe operations in the country’s airspace.

Alfred Mtilatila, director of the Department of Civil Aviation, said:”We would like to establish a designated area where we will permit different types of unmanned aerial vehicles so that we will be able to come up with the right type of vehicles which can be used for different purposes,” Mtilatila said.

In March, UNICEF-Malawi successfully completed its first test flight of the 10-kilometer route from a community health center to the Kamuzu Central Hospital in the capital, Lilongwe.

Currently, Malawi uses motorcycles or locally run ambulances to transport blood samples.

But health authorities say high fuel costs and the poor state of roads mean long delays in deliveries.

UNICEF Resident Representative to Malawi, Johannes Wedenig said UAS technologies have many potential applications for children.

“One that we have already done here in Malawi is to transport infant blood samples to laboratories for HIV testing. This can cut the time it takes to get HIV test results, making it more likely that clinics in remote areas can follow up with mothers,” he explained.

The launch of the UAS testing corridor follows a pilot project in March 2016 on the feasibility of using UAS for the transportation of dried blood samples for early infant diagnosis of HIV. The feasibility study conducted earlier this year showed that UAS are a viable addition to existing transport systems including those used to help with the diagnosis of HIV.

UNICEF will be finalizing agreements with applicant companies and institutions in the coming months. The Government of Malawi and UNICEF will also identify potential UAS operators that can function in the case of disasters in the region and put in place stand-by agreements to ensure a rapid emergency response.

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