Suresh Muthukrishnan, chair of the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Sustainability Sciences at Furman University, is part of a team that has won the humanitarian and public safety award from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The award recognizes UNICEF’s African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA), a program providing African youth with drone, data and entrepreneurship skills to help them develop and implement innovative solutions for health, agricultural and environmental problems, which ultimately improves the overall quality of life for children in Africa.
Based in Malawi, ADDA is a collaboration between lead contractor Kevin Kochersberger, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech who leads the drone construction, testing and pilot training components of the program, and Furman’s Muthukrishnan, who orchestrates curriculum design, development, and implementation of GIS and drone data analytics.
The 10-week, fully funded program is responsible for training 162 students across 19 African nations since 2020, with 60 percent of the graduates being women.
Among other roles, students go on to use their skills in areas such as malaria remediation, water and sanitation, humanitarian relief, precision agriculture, urban planning, conservation, search and rescue operations, and disaster response and recovery. Graduates may enter the drone workforce or provide data-driven solutions as consultants. “The possibilities are endless,” Muthukrishnan said.
Where the transportation infrastructure is less developed and where there’s limited health care facilities, the technology becomes even more critical, especially in the case of transporting and delivering vaccines and medicines, or blood samples for lab analysis.
The program likely wouldn’t have gotten off the ground at all if not for Muthukrishnan’s 2017 Fulbright Scholar Award.
During his Fulbright stint in Malawi he met Kochersberger, who was in the country testing drones in connection with UNICEF’s exploration of humanitarian applications for unmanned vehicles. That first meeting and subsequent informal workshop led to UNICEF’s ADDA.
Four years and many funding cycles later, ADDA has provided scores of graduates with remote pilot licenses, data analysis and visualization skills, and AUVSI Trusted Operator Program certification, which teaches students about safety and risk management practices and is highly prized by employers.
Muthukrishnan attributes the success of the program to the dynamic partnership between Furman, Virginia Tech and UNICEF Malawi, as well as the supporting local university partners in Malawi.
“It feels great to be recognized for the work we are doing in Malawi,” Muthukrishnan said. “The award is just the boost these students need to realize their ambitious but achievable development goals.”