The Government of Malawi and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are setting up the world's first dedicated air corridor for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), known as drones, to be used for humanitarian purposes.

“Malawi has over the past years faced serious droughts and flooding,” Malawi’s Minister of Transport and Public Works, Jappie Mhango, stated. “The launch of the drone testing corridor is particularly important to support transportation and data collection where land transport infrastructure is either not feasible or difficult during emergencies.”

The 40-kilometer corridor will be the first in the world to be used for humanitarian and development purposes, and will become fully operational by April 2017.

The Humanitarian UAS Testing Corridor will be used to study three key areas critical for the delivery of humanitarian aid:

  • Imagery – generating and analyzing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes,
  • Connectivity – exploring the possibility for drones to extend Wi-Fi or cellphone signals across difficult terrain, particularly in emergency settings, and
  • Transport – delivery of small low weight supplies such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.

The establishment of the testing corridor means there is now a place where we can explore the potential of drones in the development and humanitarian space. The programme will help us adapt to rapid developments in drone technology and potentially integrate drones into our work for children. Cynthia McCaffrey, Director of UNICEF’s Office of Innovation

UNICEF is working with governments and private sector partners on incorporating the system in low-income countries, with a focus on open source and user-centred design.

The agency has already had a test run in March 2016, using drones to transport dried blood samples for early infant diagnosis of HIV. According to UNICEF, the system proved to be efficient and valuable.

In the coming months, the Malawi Government and UNICEF will finalize the details and identify potential drone operators who can deploy quickly in the event of a disaster in the region, as well as put in place standby agreements to ensure a rapid emergency response.

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