For years to come, analysts and historians will be unpacking the many major events of 2020 and how these events will impact the future. It seemed as if every week, news stories were filled with more drama than we could handle. As we are easing into a new year, 2021 seems to be turning a corner for the better with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. However, towards the end of January 2021, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) announced that East Africa was once again under the imminent threat of massive locust invasions.
Last year, the Horn of Africa experienced one of the most devastating locust outbreaks ever. Cyclone Mekunu hit land in the Arabian Peninsula on May 25, 2018, leaving perfect conditions for locusts to spawn. It didn’t take long for large swarms to spread from the Arabian Peninsula to India and East Africa. The average size of a swarm is around 150 million insects. A swarm this size can destroy enough food to feed 35,000 people in a single day and multiply 20 times in just a short time. Aided by winds, the swarm can travel up to 100 miles in a single day. The fast flying insects are hard to control during the day as it is simply unsafe to approach the swarm. The unique circumstances of COVID-19 made it even more difficult to control the spread of the swarms and much of the Horn of Africa was placed in a state of emergency because of food instability.
By October of 2020, the Arabian Peninsula, India, and parts of East Africa saw a decline in the swarms thanks in part to the use of drones. Using drones, the movements of the swarms were easier to track so pesticides could be applied offensively and defensively. Then, on November 22, 2020, Cyclone Gati became the first ever hurricane to make landfall in Somalia. The excess rainfall once again set the perfect conditions for locust breeding grounds. The FAO is concerned that the already devastated Horn of Africa will not be able to survive another massive outbreak. While drones have helped track the swarms, applying treatments has been regulated to a minimum number of planes.
The drones could only be used during the day when the locust are most active. This prevents the drones from getting close enough to the swarms to also be used as an inexpensive way to spray treatments. Ethiopia has 5 planes and Kenya has 6 planes that are being used to drop pesticides over swarms. Kenya has stated that they would need at least 20 planes to be effective. The planes are expensive and much of the chemicals being spread are wasted because of the necessary altitude of the plane. But an agricultural drone company based out of Guangzhou, Guangdong, China thinks they have the answer to East Africa’s locust problem.
Founded in 2007 by Bin Peng, XAG’s mission is “to build the infrastructure of agriculture for the next 100 years, that will provide the world with sufficient, diversified, and safe food.” XAG has a range of agricultural drones that apply treatments, plant seeds, and monitor the health of crops with extreme precision. XAG’s XPlanet UAS is their ultimate agricultural drone. Flight plans can be uploaded to the drones and missions will be carried out autonomously with four-dimensional obstacle avoidance. The XPlanet only needs 15 minutes to charge and has a payload capacity for 16 liters of liquid or granular treatments. The treatments are applied by rotary, high speed air-flow sprayers that provide ultra-low-volume precision applications. Targets are met while costs are minimized.
But as XAG has pointed out, the fact that their drones can be operated at night makes them particularly useful in combatting locust populations. Recently Fraser Zhang, the owner of Sunagri Investment Zambia and XAG’s representative in Africa, put on a demonstration for the Ministry of Agriculture and Zambia Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) highlighting how XAG’s drones could be the tools needed to prevent a global hunger crisis. “During daytime, the locust swarms spread out over an extremely large area and stay mobile in the air for long periods,” Zhang said. “Their dynamic movement makes them much more difficult to be contained. But at night, what we would aim for are static objects which can be accurately sprayed.”
In his presentation, Zhang explained that the first step would be to once again use drones to track the movements of the swarms during the day. The data collected would be turned into maps that would predict where swarms will move on to. The predictive maps would show officials where to concentrate locust prevention measures. The same data collected by the drone during the day would be used to locate current swarms for treatment. Once the sun sets and the locusts have settled on the ground and in branches of trees, the drones can be used to spray the resting swarms with pesticides. The maps gathered by the drones during the day would be used to create an autonomous flight plan for the drones to treat the swarm at night. The drone can fly at an altitude that would not disturb the swarm while spraying chemicals precisely to prevent the swarm from moving on, reproducing, and wreaking further havoc.
Zhang went on to state that “It is anticipated that the mature swarms have already laid eggs at this point, which will hatch and lead to a new wave of invasions in coming months.” The FAO realizes that East Africa is at a critical tipping point, and to prevent a hunger catastrophe a solution to invasive locusts must be met. The FAO predicts that it will take $138 million to contain the plague. So far $52 million has been raised with the majority donation of $10 million coming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With Zhang’s plan to use drones to battle this plague not only will Africa have a chance at defeating the locusts, but they will be able to do so with precision and minimal financial burden.