This month, in partnership with UNICEF, Virginia Tech helped open the first African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) in Lilongwe, Malawi an effort that will provide a new generation of young people in Africa with drone, data, and entrepreneurship skills to respond to development needs in health, agriculture, the environment, and other sectors. 

UNICEF selected Virginia Tech to manage the academy following its successful delivery of training workshops in Malawi in 2017.

Through a 12-week course, the academy will develop expertise in the use of drones for humanitarian, development, and commercial purposes across the continent. Plans include training approximately 150 students to build and pilot drones by 2021. Virginia Tech developed the curriculum that combines theoretical and practical methods for making, testing, and flying drones.

By 2022, the academy will run a two-year master’s degree program in drone technology in conjunction with the Malawi University of Science and Technology. The curriculum is designed to build local capacity and a favorable ecosystem so that sustainable business models for using drones and data for development can emerge.

Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, will lead the effort. “The academy reflects Virginia Tech’s ongoing commitment to the innovative application of drone technology and education in Malawi and the Africa region. It will give graduates the necessary skills for jobs using drone applications ranging from agriculture and health to natural resources monitoring and urban planning,” he said.

The inaugural class of the academy includes 16 students from Malawi and 10 students from across Africa. More than half the students are women with undergraduate degrees in science, technology, or engineering.

Map of Drone Academy site in Lilongwe, Malawi
The drone academy will be located in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said, “Humanitarian and development program delivery in Africa and beyond can benefit significantly from the application of drone technology. The African Drone and Data Academy will be instrumental in equipping young people with the skills they need to use the technology to benefit children and their communities.”

In November 2017, Kochersberger and a group of Malawi academics and students built and demonstrated an unmanned aircraft called EcoSoar. The $350 EcoSoar costs a fraction of what a typical remote sensing and delivery drone costs, making it a sustainable aircraft design for Malawi and other African countries. It set a record as the first Malawi-built aircraft and showed its potential by successfully completing a 19-kilometer beyond visual line-of-sight flight carrying a simulated blood sample. Building upon the success of EcoSoar, the academy will create a pipeline of technical and entrepreneurial capability to commercialize new drone environment.  

Since the 1990s, Virginia Tech has had a presence in Malawi through programs conducted by faculty in the Virginia Tech School of Education and more recently through TEAM Malawi, a group of professors, students, and community partners from multiple disciplines who address community health and quality of life challenges in Malawi through technology, education, advocacy, and medicine (TEAM).

The project will be managed by Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Students in the ADDA first cohort with Virginia Tech and UNICEF representatives
Students in the inaugural class of the African Drone and Data Academy are pictured with UNICEF and Virginia Tech representatives.

Written by April Raphiou

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