Malawi tests first unmanned aerial vehicle flights for early diagnosis of HIV among infants

17 March 2016

The Government of Malawi and the United Nations Children’s Fund are testing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to explore cost-effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants. UAVs have the potential to cut waiting times dramatically and if the tests are successful they will be integrated into the health system alongside the use of other types of transport and other new technologies.

It currently takes an average of 11 days to transport samples from health centres to a testing laboratory, and up to eight weeks for the results to be returned. This means that mothers could be waiting for as long as three months to receive a test result for their children. The longer the delay between tests and results, the higher the loss to follow-up of children living with HIV.

UAVs have been used in the past for surveillance and assessments of disaster, but this is the first known use of UAVs on the continent for the improvement of HIV services.

The first successful test flight completed a 10 km route from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory in Lilongwe. The test flights, which are assessing viability, including costs and safety, will continue until 18 March.


“Malawi has pioneered a number of innovations in the delivery of HIV services, including the Option B+ policy, which puts mothers on a simple, lifelong treatment regime. We have also pioneered the delivery of results from the central laboratory to the health facilities through text messages. We believe our partnering with the United Nations Children’s Fund to test unmanned aerial vehicles is another innovation and will help in our drive to achieve the country’s goals in HIV prevention and treatment.”

Peter Kumpalume, Minister of Health of Malawi

“HIV is still a barrier to development in Malawi. This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas of Malawi.”

Mahimbo Mdoe, United Nations Children’s Fund Representative in Malawi

“Malawi is a country of many firsts and with the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicle technology this country is demonstrating yet again that it is committed to thinking out of the box and to innovation, so that no one is left behind in the AIDS response. UNAIDS Malawi commends the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Ministry of Health of Malawi for pushing the frontiers to scale up HIV testing of children. With this new technology, we expect to see a rapid scale-up in testing and treatment for children.”

Ama Sande, UNAIDS Country Director, Malawi