Flying high over Malawi: my time working with drones

Matthias and community members watch drone footage on a laptop
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Owen Cardew

Living and working in Malawi has always been exciting. As a student in conflict and development, I came to the country to conduct research on street vendors and organization structures in the markets. Three years later, I find myself working with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, as part of UNICEF’s emergency flood response.

Malawi has limited road access to rural areas even at the best of times, and after a flash flood earth roads can turn to rivers, completely cutting off affected communities. With UAVs we can fly over the affected area and see clearly what the impact has been on the ground, using this information to inform the disaster response.

The week started off busy with Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs requesting UNICEF to provide a drone to assess damage to flood-affected villages alongside Lake Malawi. We contacted a local UAV company, Precision, to provide the drone and pilot.

We left the capital Lilongwe early on Thursday for Salima, a district near the lake. The disaster department reported that 145 households had been affected by floods, with certain areas completely cut off by the overflowing Lifidzi River. After a 1.5 hour drive, we arrived at the district council office near the affected area, and picked up a district official to guide us to the crisis centre.

Aerial video footage of a village in Salima district, shot from a drone during the assessment
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Owen Cardew

After a rough drive, we reached the evacuation centre, which had been set up around Kandulu Primary School. There was lots of activity at the site. Displaced people had been temporarily accommodated in tents, so as not to disturb classes. When we arrived, a truck was offloading bags of maize and children were running around playing football and netball. Women were busy fetching water. It was noisy and crowded, but good natured.

We were welcomed by the Disaster Coordinator, called Blessings. He called the crisis team together and we discussed the assessment mission, the benefits of UAVs and how they can assist in coordinating the response. For example, aerial photography and video can identify damage to buildings, bridges, crops and wells, giving us information about when families can return home and what help they will need. UAVs can also track the movement of displaced people, and experts can use the footage to check the quality of water in wells.

Together with the team we selected two sites that were most important to assess. One because the village was entirely cut off and couldn’t be easily reached by assessment teams. The second because the team wanted to get an overview of how much of the crop fields had been damaged.

Children gather round to get a glimpse of the drone used by UNICEF for assessment
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

I asked Blessings if there were community members at the crisis centre who would be happy to assist us on the way to and during the assessment. Five minutes later our team — the drone pilot Owen, Blessings, Watson and myself — grew by three additional members: Spear, Madalitso and Sangani.

Spear was a health surveillance assistant in Mkwaila village. He carried a log book with him which contained data on the number of boreholes in the area, used to provide safe drinking water. This information was very useful to prepare the flight plan and make best use of the 25 minutes that the UAV could remain airborne.

We drove for another 20 minutes to get as close as possible to the assessment site. After this, the road became inaccessible. We parked the car and our guides started taking off their shoes and rolling up their trousers. I realised things were getting serious so Owen and I both did the same. After an hour wading through the water and mud, then crossing a river with the aid of the Malawi Marines and a military boat, we finally arrived at the site.

The team board a military boat in order to cross the swollen river
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Matthias Boyen

The assessment site was a maize field around 1.5 km from the village, which was as close as we could safely get to the affected area. After some final instructions from the locals on flying directions, Owen got everything ready and the UAV took off to loud applause from the bystanders. They eagerly watched it disappear into the sky, then crowded around Owen’s controller to watch. After 25 minutes flying and filming, the drone returned with a hard drive full of useful photo and video footage.

A local villager watches the drone take off for the assessment mission
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Matthias Boyen

Back at Kandulu Primary School, we started uploading the video footage and pictures taken during the flight over Mkwaira village. A women looked over my shoulder and started pointing at the screen. It was clear that she recognized her house in the pictures. She was visibly relieved that her house undamaged and that the water was retreating.

“I haven’t seen my house for five days, and now I can see it through this aeroplane’s eyes,” she told us in amazement.

Aerial photography of a village well, which can be used to assess the quality of the water
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Owen Cardew

UNICEF is one of the organisations pioneering the use of UAVs in Malawi. In addition to emergency response, we have also tested the use of drones to transport infant blood samples to laboratories for HIV testing. And later this year, we will support the Government to launch a testing corridor to explore other potential uses of UAVs for humanitarian use.

When it comes to emergency response, I believe that assessments done by drones shouldn’t mean that only technical staff are involved. The assessments should ideally be led by the community themselves. With the latest equipment, the pilot can fly the UAV and another person can move the camera. With the help of second screens, local residents can communicate with the camera controller to get the best footage.

Collected data can then be uploaded to the Internet to make use of crowd-sourcing to process detailed maps. These maps can then be printed maps on water-proof, durable material and given to the community leaders, allowing them to make more informed decisions to support their community.

In Malawi, as elsewhere, we will see the best results if we combine the latest technology with local know how. Working hand in hand with communities, we can deliver the best possible disaster response and help families and children put their lives back together more quickly.

Drone pilot Owen Cardew catches the drone after a flight in a flood-affected area of Lilongwe 
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

Matthias Boyen is a UN Volunteer working as HIV/AIDS support project officer with UNICEF Malawi.