Africa’s first UTM system is supporting humanitarian drones


Drone approaching Kasungu aerodrome during joint testing by GLOBHE and Flypulse
© Sebastian Wallman/Flypulse/2018.

By Michael Scheibenreif , UNICEF Malawi 

The technical capabilities of drone platforms are evolving by the day and a growing number of drone operators and manufacturers understand that their products and services will not only change the way business is done in industrialized countries; but they will – maybe even more so – revolutionize a number of working areas in the developing world!

So now – take a moment, lean back and imagine an African country in the not too distant future.

Kasungu residents are observing the drone testing at Kasungu aerodrome
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/M Scheibenreif

Due to challenges with road infrastructure, regular floods and the resulting difficulties in establishing a supply chain for medicine, a totally new way of delivering goods is being developed: drones are delivering life saving freight across flooded areas and winding dirt tracks, directly connecting remote health outposts in urgent need of supplies with central repositories.

Drone hubs with a circular area of up to 100 km will be fully integrated into a national supply chain system, enabling in-time delivery of necessary goods to remote areas without proper storage facilities. These regular ‘last mile’ deliveries will help to keep the loss of medical goods at bay, as they can deliver the small quantities needed, instead of stocking drugs for the year to come with the risk of expiration or spoilage.

The drones will also be able to map the areas within the hub and provide geo spatial data to support decision making on where to build new infrastructure like schools, hospitals or roads. In addition they will be used to do infrastructure inspections to provide investors and donors with real time information on the progress of construction.

Artificial intelligence can be used to ‘harvest’ statistical data out of drone images to identify houses, pit latrines and water sources, e.g. to fight cholera. UNICEF’s work with Globhe to analyze drone imagery is already very promising and will be covered in my next blog!

Drone images can be analyzed by artificial intelligence to ‘harvest’ statical data from pictures
© Helena Samsioe/GLOBHE/2018

But drones do not exist in a void. They are just another kind of airspace user, sharing the skies with airplanes, helicopters, parachutes and others.

Up until today, Air Traffic Control provides crucial services for aviation safety, ensuring that airplanes and their valuable human freight do not collide mid-air or get lost en-route to their final destination. An increasing number of drones sharing airspace with low-flying rescue helicopters, business aviation or commercial airlines also demands new aviation safety solutions.

Air traffic controllers need to know the position, speed, height and trajectory of drones at all times to ensure that they stay at a safe distance from a landing airplane, for example. In the medium term, drones will need to be fully integrated into the aviation system.

In the US, NASA has already started working on an unmanned traffic management (UTM) system. In the EU, ‘U-space’ is equally aiming to integrate drones into part of its airspace by 2019.

Such a UTM system will provide safety and management for highly automated or autonomous drones. Basic services will include registration and e-identification for drones, as well as authorization of flights, separation between aircraft, use of aeronautical data and meteorological information. Please visit the Global UTM Association for more details.

While the key characteristics of a UTM system are already defined, a lot of resources are still being invested in the technical backbone and functionalities, with large scale demonstrations happening around the globe. The focus is clear: safety is a top priority – not only in the industrialized world, but in every country that makes use of drone technology.

Therefore I am proud and happy to inform you that we have successfully established the first UTM system in the African continent as part of Malawi’s drone testing corridor!

The technical back-bone of our UTM is provided by uAvionix which uses ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) to provide a real-time location of the operating drone at all times.

Unifly hosts the UTM software, which visualizes the position of each individually tracked drone, and will subsequently provide a number of related services. This will enable the Malawi Department of Civil Aviation – which has the ultimate responsibility to ensure safety – to register drones, pilots and drone operators in a central database, to enter national regulations, and to declare no-fly zones.

The first successful test of Malawi’s UTM system took place during the GLOBHE and FLYPULSE tests in March 2018. The Swedish companies joined forces to develop sustainable drone services globally, with GLOBHE providing its unique AI solution and FLYPULSE bringing its drone system expertise.

The longest Globhe/Flypulse flight covered a distance of 66 km
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/M Scheibenreif

The partnership demonstrated a joint cargo/AI drone system which completed two tasks during one flight. First, it delivered medical cargo to hard-to-reach areas. Second, it captured images that triggered automatic analysis of road quality, flooding and the number of households in the area.

These drone flights were also used to put the UTM system to another test. Our initial attempt in November 2017 during the Virginia Tech tests failed due to technical issues, which did not allow us to track the drone. But this March it finally worked! The Unifly system was used to give flight permission to the drone pilot and dedicate a specific flight area. It also followed the drone location in real time, as well as showing its recent flight path.

Screenshot of the Unifly system showing the flightpath of drone ‘UAV222’ within the Kasungu drone testing corridor
© Unifly/2018

While this ‘core’ UTM system deployed in the drone testing corridor is only a first step towards the future I envisioned earlier, it is nonetheless a very decisive step. Only by creating a drone enabling system, will we be able to realise the full humanitarian potential of drones!

To learn more about  Malawi’s drone testing corridor, please visit:



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