UNICEF and the Malawian government have launched a project that will use unmanned drones to carry out humanitarian efforts in the country and, eventually, the whole continent.

The project was first piloted in 2016 and is the first of its kind in Africa with a focus on humanitarian missions and development.

Based in Kasungu Aerodrome, in central Malawi, with a 40km radius (80km diameter), the project is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities and other partners to explore how drones can be used to help deliver services that will benefit communities.

According to UNICEF, the project will facilitate three main areas:

1. Imagery – generating and analysing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes;
2. Connectivity – exploring the possibility for drones to extend WiFi 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.

“This humanitarian drone testing corridor can significantly improve our efficiency and ability to deliver services to the world’s most vulnerable children,” said UNICEF Office of Global Innovation Principal Adviser Christopher Fabian.

“The success of these trials will depend on working in new ways with the private sector, government and local entrepreneurs and engineers who can ensure that technologies deliver appropriate solutions for the people who need them the most.”

Since the announcement in December 2016, 12 companies, universities and NGOs from around the world have applied to use the corridor. The project will run until June 2018.

“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,” said UNICEF Malawi Representative Johannes Wedenig.

“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.”

[Image – UNICEF]