UNICEF’s African Drone and Data Academy has won the humanitarian and public safety award from the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

AUVSI, the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing unmanned systems and robotics, selected the Center for International Research, Education, and Development-managed drone academy for its commitment to developing drone technology to improve lives.

In operation since 2020, the drone academy launched when UNICEF partnered with Virginia Tech to provide African youth with drone, data, and entrepreneurship skills for response to development needs. Students take part in a 10-week course not only to learn how to construct, test, and fly drones, but also to analyze drone imagery and data. Drone technology can be used to address a number of humanitarian needs in the areas of health, agriculture, and the environment.

Kevin Kochersberger, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering and head of the ADDA program, said this award further supports drone technology as a valuable tool for addressing emerging global challenges.

“All around the world, we see mobility and data access as critical elements to achieving higher standards of living,” he said. “Drones have become the go-to resource to support these areas, especially in regions with limited infrastructure. Winning this award recognizes the value of the program to our graduates and the communities they serve.”

Brian Kamamia, ADDA project manager in Malawi, added, “Graduates of our program are fundamentally improving their local communities through careers in emergency medical deliveries, precision agriculture, urban planning, climate change, and anti-poaching. Furthermore, through predictive analysis such as flood modeling and land use analysis, our graduates are able to better prepare their local communities for natural disasters and disease outbreaks. The 21st-century skills acquired from ADDA are crucial in promoting and ensuring sustainable growth across the African continent."

ADDA student and instructor
An ADDA student and instructor test the drone they constructed out in the field. Photo courtesy of ADDA staff.

The drone academy is located in Malawi but has hosted students from 23 African nations, where there is often limited trained personnel and access to technological innovation. The academy partners with Malawi University of Science and Technology to help students of the program earn drone certifications so that they can enter the drone workforce or data analytics industry. Currently, admitted students receive a full scholarship that covers tuition, transportation, accommodation, meal stipends, and basic medical insurance while completing the program.

ADDA recently graduated its second in-person class of 16 students, amounting to 331 graduates since the program’s inception. The in-person graduates earn Malawi remote pilot licenses and complete the AUVSI Trusted Operator Program, which teaches students about safety and risk management practices valued by employers and customers.

Theodore Kamunga Regeza is one such student. Native to Congo, Regeza resided in the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi at the time of joining ADDA. After graduating in March 2020, he is now employed as a drone pilot by Swoop Aero, Congo’s first medical drone vaccination program, which assists people in rural areas in accessing life-saving commodities. 

After graduation, student Hafsatu Sesay, who is native to Sierra Leone, works with that country’s government as a drone technical lead under the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation. Sesay helps facilitate development of the drone ecosystem, including use of the already established UNICEF-funded humanitarian drone testing corridor. The corridor allows companies from all over the world to test their humanitarian solutions for emergency medical deliveries, search and rescue, and mapping for predictive analysis.

ADDA student working
ADDA students apply their drone skills to addressing a number of humanitarian needs in the areas of agriculture, health, and the environment. Photo courtesy of Tadala Erica Chikopa.

“ADDA is an incredibly unique program that is already making an impact across Africa,” said Suresh Muthukrishnan, chair of the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences at Furman University, an ADDA collaborator. “It feels great to be recognized for the work we are doing in Malawi, and the award is just the boost these students need to realize their ambitious but achievable development goals. I attribute the success of this program to the passion and commitment from Furman, Virginia Tech, and UNICEF Malawi along with the local university partners in Malawi."

Over half of ADDA graduates are women, and the majority are under the age of 30. Virginia Tech students have also participated in training the academy’s students.

Brady Deaton is interim executive director of the Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs. He said development goals such as zero hunger are in greater reach if programs like ADDA continue to capture the talents and passions of young people.

“ADDA is accomplishing many goals at the forefront of our mission as a center — not only do we want to address global challenges such as food security and public health, we want to build local capacity to do so as well,” he said. “Youth involved in this program are clearly eager to learn and eager to share what they’ve learned, which is tantamount to catalyzing technological advancement. We are excited to watch this program’s potential grow on the international stage and to continue to bring together participants of a wide range of backgrounds.”   

Winners of the AUVSI awards were announced in August 2021 during AUVSI XPONENTIAL, the nonprofit organization’s annual conference.

Written by Sara Hendery

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