Malawian students successfully build and test UAS under guidance from Virginia Tech engineers



In November, Virginia Tech and Malawian teams used a fully autonomous UAS to conduct tests at the UNICEF drone testing corridor in Kasungu, Malawi, which opened back in July.

Virginia Tech says that “the flights by a fully autonomous aircraft designed in mechanical engineering’s Unmanned Systems Lab set several records in Malawi,” including the longest cross-country UAS flight, the first flight of an aircraft created by Malawians, and the first delivery of a payload from a health clinic.

On Nov. 9, the UAS, named EcoSoar, achieved a first-flight milestone when it flew 19 kilometers from the Gogode Health Clinic to the Kasungu Airport. The UAS, which is built to carry small packages for medical supplies and diagnostics, carried a simulated package of medical supplies during the flight.

EcoSoar was built by a team of Malawian students from the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST). Virginia Tech graduate students Zack Standridge and James Donnelly, along with associate professor in mechanical engineering, Kevin Kochersberger, supervised the Malawian students while they built the aircraft.

As a part of a two-day fabrication workshop, 13 students from across the country built five EcoSoar UAS. After a day of flight testing, an EcoSoar UAS was launched to conduct its beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) delivery flight, in front of hundreds of villagers.

The UAS was launched by Donnelly from the Gogode Health Clinic, while Standridge stood by to recover the UAS at the Kasungu Airport. After the flight, Standridge expressed pleasure with how the flight went.

“It is extremely rewarding to see my design successfully recreated, and seeing the local students’ excitement in their work only adds to my own enthusiasm for the project,” Standridge says.

Made with material such as foamcore poster board and 3-D printed parts, the UAS costs $350. It has a payload capacity of 130 grams (4.5 ounces), and can be fitted with an eight-megapixel camera, which it can use to collect images of the ground environment. Those images can then be reconstructed for environmental monitoring.

Kochersberger, who plans to return to Malawi in 2018 with a production-ready version of the EcoSoar UAS that will be adopted by the attendees of the workshop, is optimistic about the future of this technology in Malawi. 

“EcoSoar was designed with low-resource environments in mind,” Kochersberger says. “I envision entrepreneurs in Malawi establishing businesses around the use of this aircraft – building, operating, and maintaining EcoSoar for both medical deliveries and environmental assessment activities.”

Michael Scheibenreif, drone corridor lead with UNICEF, offered similar sentiments towards the technology, saying, “this could have the potential to deliver medicine to remote and hard to access communities and is a great example of how important it is to build local capacity in the drone sector. If we can build an ecosystem of drone experts locally, we can ensure these solutions are sustainable and embedded within the communities they service.”

The corridor will remain open for one to two years, and during that time, it will be used to explore UAS applications in emergency medical supply delivery, vaccine and sample delivery for diagnosis, and remote sensing for environmental assessment.