flying drone

Malawi and UNICEF begin testing drones for disaster relief

The government of Malawi and UNICEF are researching how drones could be used in the southeast African country to assist in natural disaster situations such as droughts and floods.

Every year, millions of Malawians struggle with consequences of serious natural disasters. The UNICEF-backed project aims to find ways to use drones to provide imagery of the affected areas, deliver emergency supplies and provide mobile phone and WiFi coverage in cut-off regions.

“This is very exciting. We believe that drones have huge potential to help us respond more quickly in humanitarian emergencies,” said UNICEF’s head of innovation Cynthia McCaffrey.

The drones will be tested within a 40km corridor near Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

UNICEF said the project is larger and more complex than other existing ventures examining the potential of drones for commercial and emergency services.

The initiative could have a significant impact in the flood and drought-prone Malawi, where 40 per cent of families currently rely on food aid.

Drone-acquired aerial images could help humanitarian agencies identify places that need the help most but also assist farmers in future to improve management of their fields by providing accurate data about plant health and soil humidity. Drones could also identify hidden water sources and help communities decide where to sink boreholes.

“This initiative holds great promise for Malawi, the Africa region, and indeed the world,” UNICEF’s Malawi director Johannes Wedenig told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

UNICEF previously trialled drones delivering blood samples of babies born to HIV-positive mothers in remote areas to hospitals for testing. Currently, it may take over a week to deliver the samples due to the poor transport infrastructure, which means doctors have to wait with the decision whether to put the children on medication or not.

Transport drones can currently carry around 3kg for up to 80km while imaging drones can fly for hours, covering hundreds of kilometres.

Drones are being extensively explored in developing regions for various tasks. Two brothers from Afghanistan recently introduced a drone that can scan for landmines in the countryside and destroy them.

The drone was included in the NT100 list by UK charity Nominet Trust that celebrates innovative ideas that help tackle major global challenges.

The drone developed by Mahmud Hassani and his brother Massoud is equipped with a 3D mapping system, a metal detector and a robotic arm. Once the metal detector spots a landmine, the drone navigates closer to the explosive device and places a detonator on top of the mine. The drone subsequently retreats and blows up the mine remotely.

Mahmud Hassani, who lives in the Netherlands along with his brother, said their drone prototype was up to 120 times cheaper and 20 times faster than traditional mine clearing techniques.

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