Drones often make the news as weapons of war, terrorism and assassination, but they can save lives, too. Using drones for humanitarian missions is a major goal for Suresh Muthukrishnan, a professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University.

Muthukrishnan is also the director of the GIS and Remote Sensing Center. He studies geospatial technologies—including geographic information systems (GIS), satellite images and drones—to learn how they can be used to address social issues. He spoke about drone technology’s potential to meet global challenges at the Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship/i4Series networking event on Oct. 1.

As a Fulbright U.S. Scholar from 2017 to 2018 in Malawi, Africa, Muthukrishnan worked on bringing drones and GIS together to identify hotspots for cholera outbreaks. Malawi also has a humanitarian drone testing corridor, which is exploring how drone technologies can benefit the public.

this photo shows a humanitarian drone in action at Furman University

A drone hovers during the Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship/i4Series networking event on October 1 at Paladin Stadium.

Muthukrishnan is currently partnering with UNICEF and Virginia Tech to design and implement the African Drone and Data Academy in Malawi. The goal of the academy is to teach local students and professionals to build low-cost humanitarian drones and train them with data analysis skills to use the drones for a variety of applications that assist the government and local communities.

In January 2018, a drone designed at Virginia Tech and built by Malawian students passed a key test—a simulated drug delivery flight over a distance of 19 kilometers. According to a blog penned by Dr. Michael Scheibenrief for UNICEF, scientists and engineers involved in the test hope to use drones for delivery of emergency medical supplies, vaccines and sample deliveries for diagnosis.

The research conducted at the drone testing corridor can also help boost the Malawian economy, according to Scheibenrief. “Global companies that participate … will also be required to spend time training and working with local students, engineers and entrepreneurs and sharing the skills and opportunities that this emerging industry provides,” he wrote. “This skill-sharing will ensure that not only are technologies tested in Malawi, but that those tests develop a workforce that can pilot, service and utilize this technology in the future.”

During his Oct. 1 presentation at Furman, Muthukrishnan encouraged local business leaders and drone enthusiasts to use their expertise and drone licenses to make a positive social impact. According to a Furman University press release, he outlined several global priorities in drone services and business opportunities:

  • Using drones for global health and supply-chain management, such as supplying medicine, vaccines, blood samples for testing or blood for transfusions from urban centers and labs to remote villages that lack proper transportation or medical analytical facilities.
  • Employing drones for emergency response, disaster response and disaster recovery to reach areas that are totally disconnected from the rest of the world due to damaged transportation networks. Drones can help carry out on-demand surveys and locate people who need help, provide critical supplies for stranded people, and help map the terrain in 3D for logistics teams to use.
  • Creating a drone ecosystem that integrates teaching, training, local capacity building, applications and sustainability. This will create a professional network of companies, donors, non-governmental organizations, communities, workers and government entities making best use of the technologies available and enhancing business opportunities.

This story was adapted from the original article by Katherine Boda on the Furman University website.

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