At AUVSI Xponential in Denver, drones are everywhere. The global community of commercial and military leaders meet up yearly to discover and share the latest in robotics, drones and unmanned systems. This year’s edition focuses on the unmanned economy, lifestyle and the use of drones for humanitarian purposes.
Marc Coen, CCO of Unifly, presents Unifly’s work in UNICEF’s humanitarian drone corridor in Malawi.
Drones are a hot topic and their applications are seemingly endless. Especially in harsh environments, drones can be a lifesaving tool. Drones can help save lives, not only during a sudden disaster, but for daily humanitarian purposes and medical supply chains.
With drones, even the remotest regions can receive lifesaving materials in a matter of minutes or hours.
Unicef’s Humanitarian Drone Testing Corridor was opened in Malawi in June 2017. It is specifically dedicated to the humanitarian and development uses for drones.
The first of its kind in Africa, the corridor serves as a dedicated unmanned flight testing space and allows for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) testing in a territory over 5000 km² and up to 400 meters above ground level.
The corridor has a 40km radius (80km diameter) and is centered on Kasungu Aerodrome (with a runway length of about 1200m) in central Malawi, about an hour and a half drive from the capital city of Lilongwe. Kasungu is home to a district hospital and a variety of rural health clinics in remote areas, enabling the testing of real humanitarian use cases such as the transport of vaccines, medical supplies or blood samples.
Marc Coen, Chief Commercial Officer of Unifly, was in Malawi to set up the first Unmanned Traffic Management system in Africa in November 2017.
Marc Coen travelled to Malawi to set up the UTM system. He explains: “Unifly provides the Unmanned Traffic Management system to ensure safe testing in the drone corridor. In this project, our software platform connects with uAvionix trackers to follow the drones in real-time.
The first test of the UTM System was in November 2017, during a fully autonomous, simulated blood sample delivery flight. The flight testing explored drone applications in emergency medical supply delivery, vaccines and sample delivery for diagnosis, and remote sensing. Drones can carry lifesaving materials, in places where developed transportation networks do not exist.
A small community located 17 km from the aerodrome was chosen because of the health centre located there and the bad road connection to Kasungu. After one aborted test flight, the second try proved to be a perfect, fully autonomous flight to Kasungu airport. The flight took some 16 minutes and covered an actual distance of 19 km – find more information on the flights here.
For us, the biggest challenge was the infrastructure, or lack thereof. Electricity and internet were intermittent, we also experienced some practical issues. The first time we set up a successful UTM system was back in November. However due to technical issues with the tracker, we were not able to follow the drone at that time.
In November, the secondary goal of the test flight was for Virginia Tech to coach students and faculty from Malawian universities how to construct the aircraft so it can be fabricated and operated locally in Malawi for remote medicine delivery and remote sensing purposes. The drones are made of foam core (poster board) and 3D printed parts to facilitate local production and keep costs low.
At the second UTM test earlier this month, Swedish FlyPulse and Globhe sent out a drone that combines transport with aerial photography. The goal was once again to deliver medical supplies to areas that are hard to reach, with another secondary goal to the mission. Their drone can capture and interpret aerial imaging. This way important information is made available, such as the quality of the roads, the number of houses in each area and the effects of possible natural disasters such as flooding. This drone flight was a lot longer as well, at 66km. For us, the second attempt was more successful because we could follow the drone’s movements on our screen in real-time.
We believe it is very important to build an ecosystem of drone experts locally to ensure that these solutions are sustainable and embedded within the communities it services.”
Juan Jiménez, Director UAS Business Development at uAvionix, says: “As a safety-focused company, the life-saving potential of unmanned systems has always appealed to us. uAvionix is proud to participate in humanitarian efforts such as this one with UNICEF and Unifly. Even in areas with sparse infrastructure, ADS-B can be used both as a surveillance and DAA aid to BVLOS applications.”
Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly, says ” It has been a pleasure to work with uAvionix in setting up the UTM system for the Malawi Drone Corridor. As a world leader in UTM software technology, Unifly seeks to establish world-wide partnerships with the leaders in their field to build comprehensive UTM systems. The cooperation between uAvionix and Unifly is a perfect example of what can be achieved when complementary companies join forces to create an all-encompassing solution.”
About the drone corridor
The Malawi drone test corridor is open to industry, universities, and individuals who can apply and test a potential use case in one of the three main areas as defined below. The drone corridor in Malawi is an opportunity for companies to provide global leadership in the emerging technology field of drones for humanitarian and development work, while simultaneously developing local experience in Malawi.
The corridor will facilitate testing in three main areas:
- Imagery – generating and analyzing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes;
- Connectivity – exploring the possibility for UAVs to extend Wi-Fi or cell phone signals across difficult terrain, particularly in emergencies;
- Transport – delivery of small low weight supplies such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.
The corridor is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities, and other partners to explore how drones can be used in scenarios that will benefit marginalized communities. All data generated by the flights will be used to inform the Government of Malawi’s plans for the use of drones in multiple scenarios. This is particularly important due to frequent flooding in some areas of Malawi and challenges in transport infrastructure.
For more information, read Unicef’s article here.