Changing lives: Africa’s first drone academy

Ever since the United Nations Children’s emergency Fund (UNICEF) got a taste of how cool and convenient drones were for humanitarian operations, they never wanted to stop using them.

It all started in 2016, when the organisation was seeking ways to get dried blood spot samples for children to testing centres faster than was situation that was obtaining on the ground. Thousands of children (the figure stood at 500,000 in 2018) had been made orphans by HIV, and UNICEF wanted to get some of them tested to get a real picture of whether they needed anti-retroviral therapy or not.

But most of the children in need of testing lived in remote areas, hard to reach by road, which made transporting of blood samples on time hard.

The answer?

Drones. As soon as government and the organisation agreed on drones as the transport of choice for flying samples from inaccessible areas to testing laboratories, things started moving quickly. Samples were tested on time and medical help was rendered before it was too late.

In fact, so happy were the stakeholders with their pilot project that in 2017, the Government of Malawi and UNICEF launched the first humanitarian drone corridor to provide a controlled environment for governments, international aid organisations, universities and the private sector to explore how drones can help deliver services that benefit the poorest and hardest to reach families in the country.

More recently, following the devastation that Cyclone Idai wreaked in southern Africa in March last year, UNICEF used drones to map the extent of flooding, assess the needs of the communities most affected by the cyclone, and apply analytical models for prediction, planning and forecasting in order to reduce the future impact of natural hazards in the region.

The Challenge: Local Capacity Missing in Action

UNICEF Malawi Representative with ADDA students and instructors. UNICEF Malawi

Despite all these successes demonstrated by drones and related technology whenever they had been deployed to the field; the caveat was that the expertise to use the drones – set up flight paths, fly the drone, and process the data – was almost always imported from outside the affected countries. The limited infrastructure and lack of local capacity to build, use and maintain drone technology, as well as to analyse data and produce relevant insights for improving the lives of the most disadvantaged communities was a blight on operations that, like an itch, needed to be scratched.

Having had first-hand experience with the technology, Malawi has warmed up to drones, with a handful of drone companies setting shop in the last four year. Sadly, their willingness to employ local staff has been curtailed by absence of citizens trained in drone technology. With the industry growing in leaps and bounds on the continent, there is growing demand by both national and international actors in both the private and public sector for unmanned aviation skills in Africa. Besides UNICEF, other organisations like United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), World Bank and others want to make more extensive use of drones in Malawi. Local entities like universities or public-sector organizations also aim to embrace this new tool, yet all of them face the same albatross – a lack of qualified drone pilots and GIS experts.

The solution: A drone and data academy for Africa

There was no academic program or training facility responding to this demand on the African continent; in particular, Malawi does not have any school offering short term training for acquiring a drone pilot license, which will soon be stipulated by law. In class, GIS students are merely following introductions to the topic of drones on a theoretical level; and that is as far as their training goes. Outside of the school setting, they lack the very basic tools to put theory into practice.

But that was before the birth of the African Drone and Data Academy

To be exact, before ADDA came to the fore, UNICEF has already been compensating for the dire lack of drone skills by hosting a number of workshops across Malawi. One of these workshops saw local students – who had never seen a drone before – build their own drone from scratch within a couple of days. And it was one of these drones that completed a fully autonomous drug delivery flight over some 19 km.

But ADDA is set to close this skills gap; it is a UNICEF-sponsored academy operated by Virginia Tech in partnership with the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST). With its first campus located in Lilongwe, ADDA provides technology education for post-undergraduate African students in the physics of drone flight, communications, mechatronics, autonomy, data analysis, GIS and entrepreneurship.

With Africa’s start-up industry growing rapidly, the addition of thousands of new technology and drone-related jobs to the global economy presents a unique growth opportunity for African youth. The academy will prepare young Africans with the skills that will be needed to join the new technology workforce, and contribute to their communities’ economic and social development.

Hope Chilunga is one such student. An electrical and computer engineering graduate, Chilunga runs Drone Ultimate, a start-up with which hopes to apply the knowledge he acquired from the academy to design drones that provide solutions in the agriculture and health industries.

“My team and I are working on making drones that will help health centres in Malawi transport COVID-19 samples to testing centres around Blantyre (a city in Southern Malawi),” says Chilunga. “I also have a start-up company called Nkhwazi Aero’s that is in the business of using drones for construction management, mapping/survey, inspection, search and rescue, photography and delivery. I am driven by the passion of designing and building drones using locally available resources to make an impact in agriculture and health which are vital sectors in Malawi.”

Hope Chilunga (left) and Annie Nderitu from Kenya. UNICEF Malawi

Hope who has bigger dreams for his country and continent through his start-up is convinced that drones holds a promising future for Africa and is looking forward to more proactive policies that are geared towards creating a favourable environment for innovators who are keen on transforming the continent through local solutions.

No doubt ADDA had the same notions when they tailored their curriculum to address the needs of young entrepreneurs operating in the global south, with modules on:

  • Drone Basics — students learn drone maintenance, how to plan a flight and how to operate different types of drones. It is a very practical module that includes a lot of flying hours and practical exercises such as emergency landings. This will prepare students to become mechanics and certified pilots.
  • Logistics and Planning — A more advanced module that trains students in manufacturing and producing their own low-cost drones. All related material is published under an open source license to enable the graduates to build and use their own low-cost drones for the establishment of local businesses. Therefore, every student is also trained in the basics of entrepreneurship, as graduates are expected to start their own local drone companies.
  • Data, GIS and Analytics — provides students with key skills in data gathering and analysis, using GIS referenced data. The module is specifically focused on how to produce relevant insights and use cases for emergency preparedness, response and global health (e.g. fight cholera, malaria, etc.).

Drone education and use are incorporated into the existing curriculum in Geospatial Technologies, particularly on Introduction to GIS and Remote Sensing classes. Capacity building and outreach programs include training workshops for faculty to infuse drone-related topics into engineering and science curriculum and research. Using a simple drone aircraft of intuitive fabrication and operation, workshops are hands-on and experiential. Classes involve hands-on construction of gliders made from foam board.

The academy has lined up Certificate Drone Technology (CDT) programs in April, July and October this year, that will cover aircraft fundamentals, operations, regulations and data analytics based on drone data products. Graduates of the program will be licensed drone pilots under the Malawi government, will be certified AUVSI TOP pilots, and will possess valuable skills to enter the drone workforce and data analytics.

UNICEF are targeting to produce 150 drone professionals come 2021.

The course is open for students who have completed four years of tertiary educational within the last five years, or have a significant STEM education experience through work and/or other alternative education. The candidates should have computer programming skills and ideally some background in electronics or mechatronics. Program costs (transportation, lodging, food and tuition) will be covered for 20 students, and tuition only will be covered for an additional five students.

Candidates that successfully pass the practical and knowledge tests will receive a Virginia Tech Certificate of Drone Technology.

Chilunga underlined the need for such kind of learning opportunities for African youths.

“Developing countries need to embrace drone technology to advance and address their everyday challenges,” he said. “Farmers need to spray and monitor crops, health centres need urgent delivery of key supplies, construction sites need aerial photography for progress and survey, telecommunication companies and power companies need to inspect their towers and power-lines.

The place and space of drone technology especially in Africa cannot be overemphasized.”


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