On 12 March 2016, children in Malawi look on amazed in the community demonstration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) flying in Lilongwe. The Ministry of Health and UNICEF launched the first 10km auto programmed flight in a trial to speed up the testing and diagnosis of HIV in infants. Malawi has a national HIV prevalence rate of 10% – still one of the highest in the world. An estimated 1 million Malawians were living with HIV in 2013 and 48,000 died from HIV-related illnesses in the same year. Whilst progress has been made, and today 90% of pregnant women know their HIV status, there is still a drop off with testing and treating babies and children. In 2014, around 10,000 children in Malawi died from HIV-related diseases and less than half of all children were on treatment. Samples are currently transported by road, either by motorbike or local authority ambulances. Various factors including the high cost of diesel fuel, poor state of roads and limited distribution schedules have resulted in extreme delays in lab sample transport, constituting a significant impediment for the scaling up of paediatric ARTs effectiveness. In March 2016, the Government of Malawi and UNICEF have started testing the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) to explore cost effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants. The test, which is using simulated samples, will have the potential to cut waiting times dramatically, and if successful will be integrated into the health system alongside others mechanisms such as road transport and SMS. The first successful test flight completed the 10km route unhindered travelling from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory. Local residents gathered in amazement as the vehicle took off and flew away in the direction of the hospital. The test flights which are assessing viability including cost and safety, will continue until Friday 18th March.
The Government of Malawi and UNICEF have announced the establishment of an air corridor to test potential humanitarian use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – also known as drones.
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. The corridor 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.”
The Humanitarian UAS Testing Corridor will facilitate testing in three main areas:
• Imagery – generating and analysing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes
• Connectivity – exploring the possibility for UAS to extend Wi-Fi or cellphone signals across difficult terrain, particularly in emergency settings
• Transport – delivery of small low weight supplies such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.
UAS technology is still in the early stages of development. UNICEF is working globally with a number of governments and private sector partners to explore how UAS can be used in low-income countries. All projects adhere to a strict set of innovation principles, with a focus on open source and user-centered design.
“The establishment of the testing corridor means there is now a place where we can explore the potential of UAS in the development and humanitarian space,” said Cynthia McCaffrey, Director of UNICEF’s Office of Innovation. “This programme allows UNICEF to adapt to rapid developments in UAS technology and potentially integrate UAS into our work for children.”
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 finalising 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.