By Chris Fabian
The year is 2022. We are standing a few kilometers away from the Kasungu Drone-port in Malawi, watching a group of children playing football during a break in the school day. A shadow passes over us, we look up and see what looks like a small airplane flying low overhead, circling once or twice around a nearby health centre, dropping off a package of medical supplies, and flying onward, north towards Mphomwwe. One of the Secondary pupils looks up and says: “that drone has another delivery to make, probably a resupply, it should be there in a few minutes.
The world is changing quickly, and while we may read about self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and rocket-ships that can land themselves, these advances sometimes seem far away from the places where most humans live, work, and create the next generation of innovators. UNICEF is proud to collaborate with the Government of Malawi on the first Drone Corridor for Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) and humanitarian aviation in the world. This corridor, which officially launched on 29 June 2017, will allow global companies to work with Malawian engineers, students, and aviation experts to test, build, and document the use of drones for the good of humanity.
In the Corridor, companies will look at how the Government of Malawi, and UNICEF can use drones to improve the lives of children.
The Drone Corridor in Malawi will look at three areas where this new industry has the potential to create great change. In the case of transportation and logistics, drones can deliver medicine and resupply health centres, creating speed and efficiencies in situations where road travel would take too long. With cameras and remote sensing, drones can provide rapid information about populations affected by mudslides or other emergencies, long before a traditional car and paper assessment might be able to tell us where supplies were needed. In situations where health centres, schools, or populations may need connectivity and the internet, drones can provide access where mobile networks may not exist.
The global market for commercial applications of drones is estimated to be in excess of 120 billion USD – almost 20 times the Gross Domestic Product of Malawi. This ratio allows UNICEF to play a particular role as a broker in the drone and UAV space. UNICEF can use its networks to shape markets and create applications that serve the world’s most vulnerable children. UNICEF purchases more than 33% of the world’s vaccines, and already works with the largest pharmaceutical companies to ensure fair pricing and equal access to vaccines. We can take a similar market-shaping approach to the world of drones. By working with Malawi we can explore specific needs, like the need to quickly deliver vital medical supplies, and package them in a way that industry can understand and react to.
Godfrey Masuli recently visited UNICEF Innovation in New York. Godfrey is Malawi’s first licensed drone pilot, as well as being the country’s first paraglider. Godfrey shared his dream to inspire Malawian youth with the dream of flight – and the power that his particular desire to fly had given him. For young entrepreneurs and technologists like Godfrey, the Drone Corridor offers another unique opportunity. Global companies that participate in the Corridor will be required to spend time training and working with local students, engineers, and entrepreneurs and sharing the skills and opportunities that this emerging industry provides. This skill-sharing will ensure that not only are technologies tested in Malawi, but that those tests develop a workforce that can pilot, service, and utilize this technology in ways that no external expert would expect.
This corridor is the first in the world. The Government of Vanuatu follows closely with its collaboration with UNICEF on the launch of a national Drone Testing corridor, with a particular focus on delivering vaccines. UNICEF Innovation, globally, will help manage these assets and ensure that the work being done within two countries is accessible and available to the entire world. UNICEF’s Venture Fund will bring entrepreneurs from other countries to Malawi, and Vanuatu, to test their early stage projects. This Fund is the first Venture Fund within the UN and allows for 50-100K USD of investment in early stage technology companies.
The Drone Corridor in Malawi, and Kasungu Airfield will soon be buzzing with new technology. The effects, though will be felt in Lilongwe, Blantyre, and far beyond. This type of technological asset class allows UNICEF and the Government of Malawi to define the needs for global technology, and, most importantly create the local expertise to extend and adapt that drones to the Malawian context. The capacity for mobile phones and the internet to connect the world is apparent, but drones point to a new connectivity – one where innovators and entrepreneurs connect the needs of children and the opportunities for business to make what might have seemed a far-off and exclusive future quite close indeed.
Chris Fabian, UNICEF NYHQ