The SUCOM drone communication system was successfully deployed for the first time on the African continent, notably in Malawi, by Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) and drone manufacturer Wingcopter. Even when the person operating the drones is out of sight, the mobile radio-based system allows secure control of the drones.
Wingcopter intends to turn the local delivery drone programme into a permanent operation with more local pilots by the end of the year, when SUCOM testing in Malawi is expected to be completed. The German Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport (BMVI) contributes 1.15 million euros to the SUCOM initiative.
Malawi’s infrastructure in rural areas is inadequate. Between villages and larger towns, there are typically no roadways. Existing roads are impassable due to mud or floods, especially during the wet season. Rural medical care is nearly impossible to provide in this setting. Drone delivery can alleviate this logistical problem and bring medical care to rural regions. Wingcopter has been distributing medicines by cargo drones from city hospitals to health stations in rural Malawi as part of the “Drone & Data Aid” initiative, which is a collaboration between the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and UNICEF. Furthermore, for about a year, laboratory samples have been delivered from stations to hospitals. The SUCOM system enables more consistent care for these patients.Furthermore, for about a year, laboratory samples have been delivered from the stations to the hospitals. The SUCOM system aids in providing more dependable care in these areas, as well as dramatically improving patient diagnosis and treatment options.
Drones take off from a Wingcopter hub, which is always close to a big hospital. Pilots launch a laden drone from afar and keep an eye on it during flight. The drone is self-contained, although it is possible to change the flying path. Pilots can perform movements with the SUCOM system even if they are far away from the drone’s actual location. In Malawi, test flights have previously been done successfully. The Wingcopter drone, for example, was commanded remotely from Berlin in one scenario. Over a distance of more than 7,000 kilometres, the delay between pilot and drone communication was less than 0.2 seconds. A live video was broadcast in addition to the drone’s position and condition information.
The drone is controlled and monitored by a Control Unit Operator during delivery missions (CUO). At the destination, the CUOs collaborate closely with a Visual Observer. After landing, the latter unloads the drone’s cargo and prepares it for takeoff before the return journey.
Fraunhofer HHI’s department of “Wireless Communication and Networks” developed a communication system for SUCOM based on modern 4G and 5G technologies. The usage of multi-antenna systems and the optimization of transmitted data streams are the main topics. “We can test drone mobile communication devices on longrange flights over remote areas in Malawi.” At the same time, by assisting in the improvement of medical care in Malawi, we contribute actual value,” says Tom Piechotta, project manager at Fraunhofer HHI.
“The people are quite enthused about the initiative,” says Carsten Ramke, a Wingcopter engineer who followed the tests on-site. “The local health facilities have also given us positive feedback. The number of orders and queries is steadily increasing. We place a high value on good relations with the local populace. We make personal visits to new places and provide informational sessions where we display the drone and explain the medical delivery service.”
The researchers gather crucial information about the SUCOM system’s reliability by flying for several hours on various routes. They have already implemented specific system modifications based on this data. Furthermore, the SUCOM team lays the framework for future drone applications in Europe by applying the collected data sets while preserving established reliability.
Wingcopter collaborates on the SUCOM project alongside Malawi’s Ministry of Health, the Civil Aviation Authority, GIZ, Kasungu District, Ntchisi District, and Salima District Hospitals, as well as more than 20 local health clinics in Malawi’s rural districts.