The UN is to test drones equipped with mapping sensors and atomizers to spray pesticides in parts of east Africa battling an invasion of desert locusts that are ravaging crops and exacerbating a hunger crisis.
Hundreds of millions of the voracious insects have swept across Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya in what the UN has called the worst outbreak in a quarter-century, with Uganda, Eritrea and Djibouti also affected.
Authorities in those countries have already carried out aerial spraying of pesticides, but experts have said that the scale of the infestation is beyond local capacity, as desert locusts can travel up to 150km per day.
They threaten to increase food shortages in a region where up to 25 million people are reeling from three consecutive years of droughts and floods, aid agencies have said.
Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said that specially developed prototypes would be tested that can detect swarms via special sensors, and adapt their speed and height accordingly.
“Nobody’s ever done this with desert locusts before, so we have no proven methodology for using drones for spraying on locusts,” Cressman said. “There are already small atomizer sprayers made for drones, but with locusts, we just don’t know how high and how fast to fly.”
The swarms — one reportedly measuring 40km by 60km — have already devoured tens of thousands of hectares of crops, such as maize, sorghum and teff, as well as ravaged pasture for livestock.
By June, the fast-breeding locusts could grow by 500 times and move into South Sudan.
The effects on the region’s food supply could be enormous — a 1km2 locust swarm is able to eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people, the UN agency said.
Climate scientists have said that global warming might be behind the infestations, which have also hit parts of Iran, India and Pakistan.
Warmer seas have resulted in a rise in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean. This has caused heavy downpours along the Arabian Peninsula, creating ideal conditions for locust breeding in the deserts of Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Researchers are increasingly looking to technology to help provide early warning signs and control locust outbreaks amid fears that climate change could cause more cyclones.
Officials in Kenya have said that drones could play an important role given the limited number of aircraft.
“Every county wants an aircraft, but we only have five at the moment and they can only be in one location at one time,” said David Mwangi, head of plant protection at the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.
“We have not used drones before, but I think it’s worth testing them as they could help,” he added.
Existing drone models are restricted in terms of the volumes they can carry and the distances they can cover due to their size and limited battery life, entomologists and plant protection experts said.
Another challenge for drone use in such emergencies is the lack of regulation. Many east African countries are still in the early stages of drafting laws, prohibiting usage unless in exceptional circumstances and with strict approvals.
That makes it harder to deploy larger drones, which have gasoline-powered engines capable of carrying tanks of up to 1,500 liters and traveling distances of up to 500km, and often require special approval.
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