African Drone and Data Academy
Virginia Tech is helping to shape a new generation of drone operators in Africa. In 2020, UNICEF partnered with Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED) to open the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) – the first-of-its-kind educational effort that provides African youth with drone, data, and entrepreneurship skills to respond to development needs in health, agriculture, the environment, and other sectors.
Through a 10-week course in the southeast African nation of Malawi, the academy develops expertise in the use of drones for humanitarian, development, and commercial purposes across the continent.
Virginia Tech developed the curriculum that combines theoretical and practical methods for making, testing, and flying drones in addition to analyzing data from drone imagery. In 2020, 26 students participated in an in-person cohort while another 140 students completed online training. 20 African nations have been represented among the enrollees. With relaxed COVID restrictions, inperson instruction will resume in June 2021.
The Center for International Research, Education, and Development is an institutional leader in developing, implementing, and providing administrative backstopping for programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) higher education. CIRED’s approach is to connect faculty and researchers at Virginia Tech that have developed innovations in STEM pedagogy, applications, and sectors with partners in low- and middle-income countries to accelerate the development and delivery of highquality STEM education globally.
Since the 1990s, Virginia Tech has had a presence in Malawi through programs conducted by faculty in the School of Education and through TEAM Malawi, a group of professors, students, and community partners from multiple disciplines who address community health and quality-of-life challenges in Malawi through technology, education, advocacy, and medicine.
In 2017, Dr. Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, and his students, designed and built a low-cost drone for imaging and medical supply delivery called EcoSoar. The $350 EcoSoar cost a fraction of what a typical remote sensing and delivery drone costs, making it a truly sustainable aircraft design for Malawi and other African countries. The aircraft would not only be a low-cost delivery solution, but students who build the aircraft gain knowledge of aircraft function during the build.
UNICEF agreed to let Kochersberger and two of his graduate students test drones in exchange for hosting a workshop on building drones. Subsequently, Kochersberger and the team hosted a workshop for 13 Malawian students attending Malawi University of Science and Technology.
EcoSoar set a record as the first Malawi-built aircraft and showed its potential by successfully completing a 19-kilometer beyond visual line-of-sight flight carrying a simulated blood sample. Building upon the success of EcoSoar, the academy will create a pipeline of technical and entrepreneurial capability to commercialize a new drone environment. Today, the African Drone and Data Academy is internationally recognized as a leader in drone technology through international accreditation and partnerships with in-country civil aviation authorities.
UNICEF selected Virginia Tech to manage the academy, following its successful delivery of training workshops.
Kevin Kochersberger, who is leading the ADDA effort, serves as an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Unmanned Systems Lab at Virginia Tech.
He has worked as an advisor to senior design project teams working with hospitals and communities in Malawi for several years.
His research interests include adaptive air vehicle design, low Reynolds number aerodynamics, autonomous rotocraft systems, and integration of unmanned aircrafts into the national airspace system.
- Certificate in drone technology- Awarded by Virginia Tech
- Authority to fly in Malawi- Awarded by the Government of Malawi, equivalent to a remote pilot license until the government officially adopts its drone regulations
- International drone operator certificate- Only internationally recognized drone certificate, marks the first time the certificate has been awarded outside of the U.S.
- Trusted Operator Certificate (TOP) Level 2- Gives students advanced training to earn an in-country remote pilot license