drone engineersMalawi is a country in East Africa with 18 million inhabitants, many of whom will soon become drone engineers. The drones transport blood samples and HIV tests to laboratories. They also help on rescue missions in emergencies, deliver medical supplies to rural areas and monitor crops. Until now, Malawi lacked young people who had the qualifications to engineer this life-saving futuristic technology.

African Drone and Data Academy

In January 2020, UNICEF established the first African Drone and Data Academy in Malawi. About 140 students from across Africa received a Certificate in Drone Technology from Virginia Tech upon graduation. They partnered with Virginia Tech as the university has delivered successful drone training workshops to Malawi for years. The future ADDA graduates, more than half of whom are women, will build and pilot the drones used for agriculture, health, natural resources monitoring and humanitarian missions.

ADDA students are learning the most modern approach to pressing challenges. Deborah from Malawi plans to use her degree to tackle environmental challenges. She will then be able to improve the living conditions and health of Malawians. By 2022, the academy will offer a free master’s degree program in drone technology. This is possible due to a partnership with the Malawi University of Science and Technology. The curriculum will highlight sustainable business models for using drones.

The Drone Testing Corridor

Africa must spend $75 billion more each year to sustain its quality of infrastructure and agriculture productivity. However, investing in drone technology would reduce the region’s expenses. In 2017, Malawi opened the first drone testing corridor to test the potential humanitarian uses of drones. It provides a controlled environment for local and international drone companies to explore how drones can deliver services. Some of these services are vaccines, blood transfusion kits, malaria drugs and antibiotics. The drone engineers generate aerial images of floods and earthquakes, test drone extension of WiFi to difficult terrains and survey water to find malarial mosquito breeding sites.

Direct Impact on Malawian Lives

For residents of Chizumulu, a small island in Lake Malawi, access to blood tests was limited as the ferry only came once a week. Now, residents receive a diagnosis in hours, thanks to drone service. In 2019, Cyclone Idai caused devastating flooding, forcing many Malawians to evacuate. Aerial drone photography identified the damage to buildings, bridges and crops, which revealed when families could return home and what they would need to fix.

Malawi’s rough terrain makes it difficult for patients to get blood samples before they expire and for hospitals to receive emergency medical supplies in time. Drones can transport newborns’ blood samples and HIV tests to laboratories, and fly the results back in less than an hour, 10 hours faster than normal. In Malawi, drone images help to create maps of areas that do not have basic hygiene infrastructure, identifying flood-prone zones and preventing cholera outbreaks. Additionally, artificial intelligence can classify drone photographs of crops to prevent malnutrition.

A high demand exists for qualified drone engineers in Malawi. Many young Malawians want to pursue careers in STEM, so the academy is a perfect solution. ADDA students have futures in which their passion for STEM complements their interest in humanitarian work. They will build drones using those technical skills and fly them to improve the lives of people across Africa.

Rebecca Pomerantz
Photo: Flickr