UNICEF’s African Drone and Data Academy, managed by a Virginia Tech team, has been named a finalist for a humanitarian award granted by the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing unmanned systems and robotics.

The Xcellence Awards, hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, honor individuals and organizations that are innovators in the unmanned systems industry with demonstrated commitment to advancing autonomy, leading and promoting the safe adoption of unmanned systems, and developing programs that use these technologies to improve lives. The African Drone and Data Academy has been selected as one of six finalists in the humanitarian category.

In 2020, UNICEF partnered with Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs, to launch and create curriculum for the academy, located in Malawi. The first and only institution of its kind in Africa, the academy provides youth with drone, data, and entrepreneurship skills to respond to development needs in health, agriculture, environment, and other sectors. Students can acquire four different kinds of certificates based on their interests and capabilities.

Kevin Kochersberger, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering and director of the Unmanned Systems Lab at Virginia Tech, leads the effort. Being named as a finalist for this award within just a year of launching the academy, he said, is a testament to the value of transferring technology to the developing world.  

“It is an honor to be considered for this award so early in the development of our program,” he said. “It reinforces how important our work in Malawi continues to be. Being at the forefront of adapting technology to better address the needs, gaps, and realities of communities around the world is at the heart of the Virginia Tech motto, Ut Prosim, or ‘That I May Serve.’ The recognition of this award could help contribute to the goals we have for the future, including launching more drone and data academies in other countries.”

Three students watching a drone fly
Students at the African Drone and Data Academy learn how to fly drones for such purposes as delivering medical supplies and capturing images to assess land.

UNICEF has been using drones to serve vulnerable communities around the world for several years, including for the delivery of medical commodities and identifying flood-prone areas. For such activities, the curriculum Virginia Tech devised trains Africa’s youth on both theoretical and practical methods for constructing, testing, integrating, and flying drones in addition to analyzing data from drone imagery. The academy has hosted 170 students from 20 different African nations in person and online. More than half the participants have been women.

“Everyone from the first in-person cohort has found employment in drone operations or data science — in some cases, leading government initiatives to build the drone industry,” Kochersberger said.

The academy’s graduating students already have major aspirations for how to apply what they have learned at the academy in their own communities. Take, for example, Annie Nderitu from Kenya, who is determined to use drones to combat cholera, or Deborah Mtambalika from Malawi, who wants to address environmental challenges. A number of the students want to use drones to battle hunger and malnutrition.

The academy’s training efforts follow UNICEF’s “Drones and Data for Good” vision, focusing on the potential of technology to deliver positive results to every child and all people.

“Providing tools to and building the capacity of young people in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a core pillar of the work we do,” said Van Crowder, executive director of CIRED and a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Being recognized on the global stage for our drone work is an important reminder that not only can improved technologies significantly impact the livelihoods of those on the receiving end of their benefits, but also of those who do the work of improving the technologies as well.”

Winners of the AUVSI awards will be announced in August at the nonprofit’s conference in Atlanta.

Written by Sara Hendery

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