Graduate student helps keep drone academy in Malawi on track amid COVID-19 pandemic

Twenty-five students from nine African countries were prepared to make history on March 18. They would be the first graduating class from the African Drone and Data Academy in Malawi, a joint educational effort between Virginia Tech and UNICEF that provides students with drone, data, and entrepreneurship skills. 

Then, news came that a novel coronavirus was spreading.

Brianna Friedman, a Virginia Tech master’s degree student in the College of Engineering and an instructor at the academy, was in Malawi when she heard the news. “I didn’t realize the extent of the virus until I talked to my parents back in the States. We started to realize that it would affect the student cohort”

More than 200 people were expected at the graduation, including graduates’ families, international media, and development partners, as well as representatives from UNICEF, Virginia Tech, and drone companies.

According to Friedman, “The graduation had to be scaled back just days before the ceremony. Parents could no longer attend, and most international media livestreamed the ceremony.”

UNICEF moved forward with the graduation, and Friedman and local project manager Brian Kamamia joined Malawian governmental and educational partners in awarding certificates in drone technology to the students. Each student also received an international drone operator certificate as well as an “authority to fly” in Malawi, equivalent to a remote pilot license, until the government officially adopts its drone regulations.  

About 50 people attended the ceremony. Friedman noted, “We didn’t shake hands. Instead of sitting in rows, all tables were circular to keep people further apart.” 

Friedman, right, presents graduate Tadala Makuluni with an international drone operator certificate.

Friedman was supposed to remain in Malawi after the graduation to prepare for new cohorts, scheduled to begin in mid-April and June. She left Malawi after the graduation as a result of the pandemic, but not before helping the team establish incubator space for companies and students to collaborate on innovative uses of drones, such as flood mapping and disaster preparation. Five part-time employees are preparing for the next class of students and providing support for the incubator and flight operations.

Future cohorts are tentatively scheduled to begin in late summer.

According to Kevin Kochersberger, associate professor of mechanical engineering who leads the project, “It is disappointing that we cannot roll into the next class to meet a goal of 98 graduates by the end of 2020, but UNICEF remains committed to the project, and I’m hopeful we will meet the targets by mid-2021.”

The academy develops expertise in the use of drones for humanitarian, development, and commercial purposes across the continent through a 10-week course. 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.

UNICEF awarded Virginia Tech the project following successful delivery of drone training workshops in Malawi in 2017. The Center for International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs, manages the project.