U.N., Malawi to explore use of drones to deliver faster aid in crises

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.N. children’s agency and Malawi’s government are teaming up to test whether drones could make aid delivery faster and more effective during humanitarian disasters, such as floods and droughts which affect millions of people every year.

UNICEF said on Thursday that experts would investigate how drones could be used to provide aerial imagery to help governments and aid agencies pinpoint where the most urgent needs are in crises.

They will also test the use of drones for making small deliveries such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis.

“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 trials, likely to begin next April, will be carried out in a “humanitarian drone testing corridor” that will allow the unmanned aircraft systems to be tested over a distance of up to 40 km (25 miles) outside Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

Engineers will also investigate how drones could be used to extend Wifi or cellphone signals across difficult terrain.

Drones are already being tested for commercial deliveries in countries like the United States and New Zealand.

But the testing corridor in Malawi is thought to be the first to focus on the use of drones in humanitarian operations and development work.

The initiative could have a significant impact in Malawi, which is prone to floods and droughts. Forty percent of families in the southern African country currently rely on food aid.

In the future aerial imaging drones could help farmers boost harvests by identifying irrigation problems and monitoring soil variation, water content and plant health, UNICEF’s Malawi director Johannes Wedenig told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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,” Wedenig said.

Drones used for imaging can fly for hours, covering hundreds of miles, while transport drones can currently carry around 3 kg for up to 80 km, UNICEF said.

The initiative follows a pilot project by UNICEF in March to test the use of drones to transport blood samples from babies born to HIV-positive mothers in a rural area to a hospital laboratory.

Samples transported by road often take over a week to reach the lab, creating delays in getting babies born with HIV onto life-saving drugs.