Voices of Youth – drones in emergencies

My name is Dumisani Kaliati. I am a drone entrepreneur and the owner of MicroMek, a Malawian-based hardware startup that constructs low-cost fixed-wing drones. I learned how to build and fly drones in 2017 when training with the UNICEF and Virginia Tech.

I am also an instructor and technician at the UNICEF-supported African Drone and Data Academy. I used the drones to monitor the environment and to deliver of medical supplies in hard-to-reach areas.

In late January 2022, I was contracted by UNICEF Malawi to support the government’s emergency response efforts to Cyclone Ana, which had impacted more than 800,000 people. UNICEF wanted me to collect drone and data imagery of the affected areas in Chikwawa District.

I assembled my team and left for Chikwawa, located about 50 km away from Blantyre, where my company is located. As we started down the mountain slopes that separate Blantyre and Chikwawa we saw blown off rooftops and groups of people including children seeking shelter in school buildings.

A piece of the main road had been washed away by flood waters preventing cars and people from getting through. We also saw children swimming in the dirty waters, most likely exposing themselves to disease.

With help from UNICEF staff, we assessed the area and found a clear and dry spot for launching and landing our two drones. We conducted prefight calibrations and drew a flight plan to guide the unmanned aircraft.

Once the drone flights started, crowds of curious people surrounded us wanting to know what we were doing. We gladly answered all their questions hoping that some of the school-going children were getting inspired.

We flew drones for three hours and collected high-resolution image data covering an area of 26 hectares. The drone images were submitted for a quality assurance check, confirming they were high quality and ready for use in ongoing response activities.

How the drone images will support Cyclone Ana emergency relief efforts

In general drone imagery provides a quick and cost-effective way of collecting high quality, high-resolution geospatial data. The drone data allows for quick generations of maps, that can highlight affected disaster areas and support decision-making.

When paired with other technology like “infrared” and “lidar,” drone data provides insights that are invisible to the human eye such as heat signatures, and even underground object detection, which can be valuable in real-time search and rescue missions.

The images we submitted to UNICEF Malawi after the cyclone give a bird’s-eye view of the flood-affected area, giving emergency relief workers a good idea of the terrain, they are dealing with.

The images have also been analyzed using photogrammetry software to come up with orthomosaic maps. These maps provide a high-resolution overview of the overall area and can be further analyzed to indicate where floodwaters will end up based on the elevation within the affected areas.

The orthomosaic maps also show which areas won’t receive floodwaters, so know where it will be safe to sink boreholes, build schools and homes. We also know where to redirect traffic in case of flood reoccurrences in future.             

The value of having local skilled youths equipped with 21st-century skills

Equipping young people like me with 21st-century skills creates a pool of local talent that is familiar with the physical and cultural environment. It also helps to create jobs which are so crucial in a country like Malawi where unemployment is high.

I would like to think my involvement in this drone mapping exercise is a good example of the need to continue to invest in employable skills in local youths who in turn use those skills to support the families and give back to the community.

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