Due to the lack of good roads and rugged topography, a lot of areas in Africa are not accessible. In 2016, UNICEF began to experiment with the use of drones in Malawi. It started with flying dried blood spots (DBS) from hard-to-reach communities to laboratories to minimize the waiting time for HIV testing of infants. Consequently, the Government of Malawi collaborated with UNICEF the following year to launch the first humanitarian drone corridor. Today, that idea has grown into the first African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA).
Drones can help deliver crucial services to the poorest and hardest to reach families in Malawi. Inasmuch as it looks like medical supply delivery is the major use of drones in Africa, it has proven vital in other areas. For example, UNICEF used drones to map the extent of flooding during the last cyclone Idai in southern Africa. Speaking on the benefit of drones to Africa, UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore said,
“Humanitarian and development program delivery in Africa and beyond can benefit significantly from the application of drone technology. To get there, we do need to overcome one major hurdle: Malawi and neighboring countries lack the qualified personnel needed to seize the opportunities offered by drone and data technology. Therefore, education and local capacity building are needed to enable these digital advances to bring lasting change to the country and beyond.”
Challenges of Building African Drone and Data Academy
According to UNICEF, the major challenge was operating with limited infrastructure. However, there were other issues including “the lack of local capacity to build, use and maintain drone technology as well as to analyze data”. Although there are a handful of local drone companies, there is a shortage of knowledgeable staff in the country “to keep up with the growing demand among local and international actors”.
Before the building of the African drone and data academy, there was no academic program or training facility on the continent. To date, there are no schools offering short term training for acquiring a drone pilot license in Malawi. Therefore, the country continues to grapple with the lack of qualified drone pilots and GIS experts.
The Game Changer
To solve these problems, UNICEF sponsored the creation of the African Drone and Data Academy. The academy will be operated by Virginia Tech in partnership with the Malawi University of Science and Technology. The first campus is in Lilongwe and will provide technical education for postgraduate African students. The study areas include:
- Physics of drone flight
- Data analysis
There is a rapid growth in start-ups requiring drone technology across Africa. Thus, the drone and data academy will bequeath young Africans with the requisite skills to take up these budding jobs. The curriculum consists of a module on drone basics, a module on drone data, GIS and analytics, as well as a module on drone logistics and planning. Consequently, these students will be able to contribute to the economic and social development of their communities.
By 2021, the academy plans to train 150 students in building and piloting drones. Through funding from UNICEF’s partners, the first 26 students from across Africa will get free tuition. By 2022, in partnership with Malawi University of Science and Technology, the academy also plans to run a two-year, tuition-free master’s degree program in drone technology. Reacting to the development, Malawi’s Department of Civil Aviation director, James Chakwera said,
“In Malawi, we strongly believe that adopting modern technologies such as drones and advanced data analysis and management techniques will help us to serve our children better. We are proud to partner with UNICEF in such an exciting endeavor.”
Reactions from the First Students at the Africa Drone and Data Academy
The first 26 students have already begun their 12-week training at the drone and data academy. For most of them, it is a dream come true. Karen Asaba is one of the 26 students. She first developed an interest in drones at Uganda Flying Labs. Uganda Flying Labs is a Kampala-based drone mapping and data hub. As a student of the drone and data academy, Asaba will learn to build her own drone. She said,
“Right now, we are learning how to assemble a drone from the start, considering its weight, considering the central gravity, considering the GPS and all the electronics that are involved in making the drone.”
For Lydia Elias from Ethiopia, building and piloting drones was a lifelong dream. According to the 23-year-old,
“Aeronautical engineers are very few in my country. After learning I will try to teach my people. I have an aerospace club, so I will try to transfer this knowledge to (colleagues) in my country.”
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