reflections from malawi: taking flight

Good morning!

This post has a dual purpose: (1) we’d like to introduce our first guest blogger, Matt Petney. We may have coerced him into being a guest blogger, but he provides invaluable insight about what is happening over in the design studio in Malawi.


Matt works with the faculty at the University of Malawi Polytechnic to integrate practical projects into existing curriculum and create a design center modeled after the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice. Before joining Rice 360°, he worked at the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design at Johns Hopkins to manage the development of Ebola Personal Protective Equipment. We’re very fortunate to have him on our team (we’ll be introducing more members as the days go by!) and we’re so glad he’s sharing some stories about his students.

Matt writes:

The students here are becoming an inquisitive and bonded community, asking each other for help and giving one another advice. Some are becoming experts, others are happily realising (British English here) there is more to learn.

While the students are great, the two supply orders we placed in August are still processing (it is very difficult to pay outside suppliers; thankfully we want to change one of these orders anyway), and the internet company hasn’t installed our router despite promising it months ago. No bother. With enough pestering, things generally move just fine.

I wanted to talk about two students that have made a particular impression on me this week: Paul and Chia.

Paul is a third year mechanical engineering student at The Polytechnic. Classwork isn’t his forte, so it’s taking him a little longer to finish his course load. Yet, what he lacks in academic interest he makes up for ten-fold in his obsession with airplanes. He’s spent the last 8 years building different models. The first was pretty simple, with a water bottle as the body and a trash bag over a wire skeleton as the wing. It didn’t fly.

I met him a few iterations later. He had something bigger, heavier, and more dangerous. We drove his dismantled plane in my small Rav out to a strip of asphalt with amazingly few potholes, which was the product of a long search by Paul. It created a lot of excitement taxiing down the road outside town, but still didn’t lift off.

One of Paul’s flight tests in Blantyre, Malawi

He’s now working on another model with a fancy remote control and motor. It’s the first time he’s been able to control one of his designs in the air. During his first day using the remote, his model crashed half a dozen times, and he left the studio with the biggest smile on his face. He has just finished making a new wing design using foam from inside a refrigerator door.

I’m confident Paul will get one flying. It’s just a matter of focus and a few more days.

Paul working in the design studio on his latest plane design

Just two months ago, another student, Chia came to the design studio with his own multicopter design (a drone) made of motors from CD and tape players; every propeller was made of thin strips of metal.  These days he is one of the most proficient members of the quadcopter team when designing on the computer and laser cutting parts. When he’s not working with the group designing a drone, he’s making a four legged crawling robot. He’s modeled every aspect of it on the computer and has learned to animate it so it looks like it’s walking.

Chia’s walking robot

It’s after 5:00 here and the studio is closed, but I can hear a few students talking about the cheap drone they flew today. They’re discussing how to take it apart and learn from it. They’re also boasting a little about how the control system they’re building is going to be better than this one. I believe them.


Til next time,



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