Malawi launches Africa's first humanitarian drone testing corridor

On March 14, 2016, the Dr. Peter Kumpalume, Malawian minister of health, launches the first autoprogrammed unmanned aerial vehicle (or drone) flight from Area 25 Health Center in Lilongwe to Kamuzu Central Hospital, watched by the UNICEF Representative Mahimbo Mdoe and other officials from Ministry of Health. The UAV landed successfully in the central hospital, 10 kilometers away, 20 minutes later. Photo by: UNICEF

Malawi will be home to the first air corridor in Africa to test the application of unmanned aircraft system for humanitarian and development use.

The humanitarian drone testing corridor, announced today by the government of Malawi and UNICEF will become operational by April 2017. It will facilitate testing for projects related to imagery, connectivity and transport.

The launch builds on efforts by UNICEF and other global development organizations to work with governments as well as private sector partners to explore how UAS, also called drones, can drive progress on issues ranging from environmental conservation to health care delivery in low income countries.

“Malawi has over the past years faced serious droughts and flooding,” Jappie Mhango, Malawi’s Minister of Transport and Public Works, said in a statement. “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.”

Humanitarian test corridors allow governments to create a safe space for UAS operators to perform test flights, work out kinks, and make improvements. In Malawi, the details of the testing corridor were determined in consultation with the Malawi Department of Civil Aviation. Its maximum distance will be 40 kilometers to test transport drones, with an altitude limit of 500 meters above ground and a planned timespan of one to two years.

Humanitarian drone testing corridors provide groups working on humanitarian applications of UAS technology an opportunity to demonstrate value. Successful projects may convince more governments to allow drone systems they might not be open to otherwise.

Setting the rules

Establishing a regulatory framework is the key first step to getting drones in the air, said Amir Nayeri, principal at Provence Capital, whose investments include Discern Data, which leverages unmanned aerial vehicles to collect data on natural resources.

“The fact is, you can’t have a free for all, with a bunch of drones flying around at different altitudes doing different things,” he told Devex.

He suggested that governments identify specific areas in which they believe drones can help transform their economies and develop their societies then pass regulations that reflect those needs, as Malawi has done.

Discern, he said, works “very closely with government officials to help them understand the industrial and environmental uses to help them get a breadth and depth on the power of deploying drones in their countries.”

Many African countries have not yet drafted rules for unmanned aerial vehicles. But the landscape is changing quickly, and resources such as the Global Drone Regulations Database track those changes for organizations looking to deploy their drones.  

Rwanda launched the world’s first national drone delivery system and will use it to deliver blood to patients in remote parts of the country, in partnership with the Silicon Valley-based company Zipline.

“From our experience, countries that develop drone regulations typically do so from a stance of concern, seeking to protect the public from the risks they perceive from UAVs' operation and integration into general airspace,” Brittany Hume Charm, head of international growth at Zipline, told Devex.

Charm said that concern was understandable, but pointed to the growing benefits of drone operations. Regulations can facilitate working with safer, large-scale professional UAV operators, which would take a measured approach.

“Ironically, regulations may actually block the professional operators who'd be incentivized to develop and protect a strong track record of safety,” she said.

UAV hobbyists, by contrast, could pose risks, since they are less likely to have training, insurance, and comprehensive understanding of the regulations.

“Our experience suggests that countries can be open to thoughtfully revising regulations when presented with a compelling, lifesaving use case and a robust safety track record,” she said.

A new test opportunity

Malawi’s new testing corridor builds on a pilot project also led by the government and UNICEF in March, 2016.

The pilot tested the feasibility of using drones to transport blood samples of infants being tested for HIV to a laboratory. Using the airspace rather than land transport could cut wait times for results.

The new corridor opens more opportunities for innovation. Individuals and organizations that agree to abiding by the UNICEF innovation principles can express their interest in the testing corridor here.

For more Devex coverage of innovation, visit Focus On: Innovation

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.