UP4DREAM is a truly innovative idea which has the potential to scale through various high-profile partners and create a tangible, positive impact in Malawi and, more widely, will contribute to the betterment of the Malawian population.
Disaster preparedness and early warning systems are key to ensure that affected and vulnerable communities get all the necessary support and commodities in a timely manner, without big delays. Currently, early warning systems and disaster preparedness practices in Malawi are developing; however, much of the evidence used to make informed decisions is scattered, not optimized, and not even hosted on Geographic Information Systems (GIS). This makes the preparedness process complicated and inconsistent, which ultimately leads to the situation of vulnerable communities not getting necessary humanitarian help. UAVs have proven to be useful tools in gathering detailed, hard-to-access aerial data, which can then be integrated into the prediction of natural disasters for maiking detailed emergency preparedness plans, run flood modelling, identify potential hotspots for disease outbreaks, evaluate crop health and yields, and others.
Several developmental organizations are trialling drone technologies, while some are already scaling up the use of drones in the humanitarian context. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) Malawi has been actively promoting the use of drones in the humanitarian and development context. Together with local authorities, they have established a Humanitarian Drone Corridor and a technology-friendly integrated airspace, where private entities, organizations and academia can trial their drone technology and provide developmental solutions to Malawi context. Ever since UNICEF Malawi office tested a drone for the transport of dried blood spot (DBS) samples in 2016 and opened a drone corridor in Kasungu in 2017, the drone testing corridor has served as a sandbox enabling drone service providers to test their services in humanitarian and development cooperation context.
The corridor is a dedicated airspace with the center being at Kasungu Airport. Its size is almost 5000 km2, and it is a circular shape with the radius of 40km (Figure 1). There’ve been several entities (academic and private) come to the corridor to test their prototypes or gather their data for their AI or other data analysis purposes, however, there have never been any large-scale mapping. Only a very tiny and not consistent area has been covered by drone mapping.
The Kasungu district (7000 sq. km, ±500,000 inhabitants) has 2 big rivers flowing, it has a district center (city) in it, has remote, hard-to-access villages, has a natural park, a small air field, schools, health facilities, and many other items that are of an interest from humanitarian relief / disaster preparedness perspective. Seasonally, it has flooding and drought problems that leave to malnutrition, lack of food, fresh water, disease (like Cholera) outbreaks, etc. Additionally, like any other district in Malawi, it is exposed to malaria (Figure 2 and 3).
The key priorities of the corridor are the followings:
Generating and analyzing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in case of emergencies and natural disasters, such floods and earthquakes.
Exploring the possibility for UAVs to extend Wi-Fi or cell phone signals across difficult-to-reach areas, particularly in emergencies or after a natural disaster.
Delivery of small low weight supplies such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.
The UP4DREAM project focuses on the first key priority of the corridor (Imagery), and has the ambitious aim of being one of the biggest mapping mission in developing Countries, for the realization of cartography at big scale and high level of detail, and the related products based on images and data acquired by UAV.
Express of interest from Malawi Country to Polytechnic University of Turin in activities related to Geomatics and Photogrammetry
UNICEF Malawi already expressed its interest in a collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Turin with the purpose of ensuring that local institutions, universities, researchers, and service companies and manufacturers operating in the drone corridor will have the right knowledge and understanding of photogrammetry and spatial information best practices to perform big-scale aerial data acquisition, processing and sharing.
For this reason, a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed between Polytechnic University of Turin and UNICEF to formalize the cooperation agreement; this cooperation between the Polytechnic University of Turin and UNICEF Malawi will contribute to the betterment of the Malawian population ensuring that the imagery activities performed in the corridor will be undertaken in the most efficient, cost-effective and scientifically-rigorous way. For the purposes of this project, the Malawian local universities Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Mzuzu University have been enlisted as partners in the project, to benefit from the scientific expertise and technical capacities of Polytechnic University of Turin.
UNICEF Malawi will be able to provide logistical and coordinational support on the ground for activities, including customs clearance for equipment, authorizations from the Department of Civil Aviation and coordination support for participants. Meanwhile the Agisoft Metashape company will provide support on the software side, and training for the actors involved in the project.
The project will last one year (with possible extension over time upon funding availability) and, following mainly aims oriented to education and applied research, is based on both technology transfer aspects and on capacity building approach, and it is composed of the following phases: testing, training, data-acquisition, processing, sharing and management.