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Flying high

The dense forest, in all of its glorious green, as if it were the rainy season, is divided into two by an earth road that seems to have been penciled into the scene by a skillful artist.

In the distance, a black and orange luxury saloon car drives on the earth road, slowly, from the north to the south – the sort of slow people drive in when they are in love, and have planned to spend the day driving into the great nowhere for some quality time.

Almost immediately, the words, ‘somewhere in Africa’ – commentary style – come onto the screen, to complete the picturesque introduction of artist Purple C’s – real name Albert Makhaliremo – music video, Heart.

Throughout the four-minute-and-10-second long video, your thoughts are likely to wander into one of two directions; either off to a journey of guessing which part of Africa this is, for the location is simply captivating, the sort you serendipitously wander into or, indeed, if you have an imaginative mind, on to the videographer’s vantage point for some of the motion pictures, where you get to enjoy the shots captured from an aerial position.

You wonder if these shots were taken from a helicopter, and it is only when the credits announce the presence of a drone-operator among the video’s production team that many of the aerial shots in the video begin to make sense.

Purple C’s video, which was shot and directed by the talented Gift Sukali, of HD Plus Creations LTD, is not the only Malawian video that was partly shot using a drone-camera. Patience Namadingo’s Sinjenjemela video, shot by another famed videographer, Peter Mazunda, also has scenes, including one where ‘soldiers’ stand atop a hill celebrating the accomplishment of their mission, that were shot using a drone-camera.

According to HD Plus Creations LTD, which does not own its own drones but hires them for its work, drones have revolutionised videography by facilitating the capturing of rare shots which, a few short years ago, would have required the hiring of helicopters – an expensive endeavour that is, quite simply, beyond the reach of many Malawian videographers.

Videography, which is the art of recording images with a video camera, has truly been made artistic by the arrival of the drone-camera. From capturing beautiful aerial shots of vast forests, to those of ‘soldiers’ celebrating an accomplished mission, the drone-camera is, clearly, a game-changer. And from the looks of it, it may have come to stay.

Drones in health care

If one thought the influence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – as drones are also known – in Malawian life was limited to videography, then they would have to think again because drones are cementing their contribution to Malawian life by transcending the boundaries of artistic video-making and flying higher still into other realms of life, most notably in health.

Earlier this year, for example, Unicef Malawi conducted a study on how drones can be used to transform healthcare delivery in the country, especially in HIV/ Aids. The 2016 Malawi HIV prevalence rate is estimated at 8.7 percent for the 15-49 age group, and an estimated 976,000 Malawians are living with HIV.

Unicef, which operates in over 190 countries with a mandate to promote the rights and well-being of children, works to translate its commitment into practical action, focusing especially on reaching the most vulnerable and most excluded children – no wonder Unicef Malawi’s drone-study was focused on paediatric HIV.

Unlike in adults, screening for the virus in children with HIV-positive mothers requires specialist laboratories that can do a sophisticated test and there are only nine of them in Malawi; and for many people, these specialist laboratories are hard to access.

The study by Unicef was, therefore, founded on the desire to solve a myriad of challenges faced in delivering paediatric HIV/Aids-care in Malawi. To understand the gravity of paediatric-HIV in Malawi, one only needs to understand that every year, thousands of children are born to HIV-positive mothers – and for 2016, this figure is estimated to be 54,000 children – while nearly 3,600 children will die of HIV-related illnesses, according to the Ministry of Health National Estimates.

A young child can get the HIV virus from an HIV-positive mother during pregnancy or birth or when the mother is breastfeeding but drugs can reduce the risk of infection. Early diagnosis of HIV in babies coupled with prompt initiation onto treatment for those who are infected is, therefore, critical to prevent unnecessary illnesses and tragic deaths.

While there has been tremendous progress made in the paediatric HIV arena, with 90 percent of pregnant women today knowing their status, for instance, there is still a drop-off with testing and treating babies and children under 12 years of age. Currently, samples are transported by road, either by motorcycle or local authority ambulances.

Various factors, including the high cost of diesel fuel, poor state of roads and limited distribution schedules have resulted in extreme delays in lab sample transport, constituting a significant impediment for the scaling up of paediatric antiretroviral therapy’s effectiveness. At present, the time taken to get from a healthcare facility to the lab is 11 days and time taken to return the results by road can take as long as eight weeks.

And this is where drones could have a revolutionary effect, by slashing the waiting time for the blood test results. No wonder, Mahimbo Mdoe, then Unicef Malawi’s Country Representative, speaking of Unicef’s study on drone effectiveness, said: “This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi.”

Using three leased drones, and a flight team of three drone pilots from the manufacturing company, the Unicef Malawi drone study oversaw 93 autonomous flights, with distances covered by the drones ranging from one to 10 kilometres. Some of the flights involved the transportation of ‘dummy’ dried blood spot samples for early infant diagnosis of HIV between Area 25 Health Centre and Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH), and ‘dummy’ paper-based test results from KCH to Area 25 Health Centre.

Unicef’s study included a cost analysis study which compared the use of UAVs to the use of other road-based transportation mechanisms for laboratory samples. The initial findings from the experiments were variable; in some instances, drones were more expensive, as motorcycles, for example, have a greater efficiency by transporting more samples while, in other instances, drones were more cost-favourable when travelling directly between a testing facility and health centres. Having finalised the study, Unicef Malawi is in the process of sharing the findings with relevant stakeholders.

What is clear from all this, though, is that drones – from videography to health to who knows what else – are changing Malawian life in novel ways which, in the past, could only have been the stuff of dreams.

Without a doubt, UAVs have taken off and are flying the country’s skies with all pomp and fanfare. And flying high at that!

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