A pioneering team of researchers have taken part in an initiative to use drones to tackle hunger in Africa.
Professor Jon Carroll, Ph.D., of Oakland University, traveled to Liwonde, Malawi as part of a group of scholars harnessing the latest advances in science and technology to promote sustainable agriculture in Africa.
The aim of the research project, called “Precision Agriculture for Smallholder Systems in Africa,” is part of “Feed the Future,” was to help farmers boost crop production. The project is part of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, as a response to threats posed by climate change.
Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the project has been run in collaboration with Michigan State University’s Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, and Kansas State University’s Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab.
Carroll, has considerable past experience in using UAVs for various research endeavors, having worked previously with the Center for Global Change while in graduate school at Michigan State. These have included a historical survey of 17th century castle at Chateau de Balleroy in Normandy, France, as well as taking students to Israel use a drone on an archaeological dig.
“They knew of the work I had been doing in different parts of the world, and they thought that drone capability would be a great asset to the project,” said Carroll, a Registered Professional Archaeologist, FAA-licensed drone pilot and assistant professor in OU’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work and Criminal Justice.
Hunger and malnutrition are a big problem in Malawi, according to USAID, as recurring droughts have decimated Malawi’s agriculture sector. With 38 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line and 47 percent of children have stunted growth, Carroll hopes their work will help improve conditions.
“It’s a big problem, potentially disastrous.” Carroll said. “We went down there in February because that’s their growing season, and it didn’t rain once while we were there.”
To assist Malawi farmers improve their agricultural practices, the researchers assessed crop health using aerial imagery captured by the drones.
As Carroll explained, “What we are doing is bringing highly detailed aerial imagery together with weather station data to understand what’s going on with these farm fields. This approach is widely available in the U.S., but in Africa they simply don’t have access to these technologies.”
Capturing images with specialised multispectral sensors to quantify levels of water and chlorophyll in crops, the researchers recommended solutions to potentially improve crop yields. The drones also create 3-D measurements of plants in different parts of the field to further pinpoint problem areas.
“The answer could be water or fertilizer, or it may be that they are growing the wrong types of crops for that soil,” Carroll said.
The research team collaborated with other research groups, including government officials and researchers from Malawi and other places. Carroll commented that the unfamiliar sight of a drone in the sky fascinated the local children and families.
“This is an area where people are just not used to seeing this type of technology, so any time that I flew the drone, we always had a crowd,” he recalled. “Entire families would come out to see what was going on, and I would make it a point to try to explain to the people what we were doing and answer their questions, either in English or through an interpreter.”
Carroll applauds Oakland’s College of Arts and Sciences and Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work and Criminal Justice for supporting his work. He believes this will also help put Oakland on the global map of innovative UAV research efforts.
“This is one capability we have that many other institutions in the region don’t,” he said. “Oakland is leading the way in using drone technology in different parts of the world, and for different purposes. None more urgent than helping those whose survival depends on achieving sustainable food production.”
As well as training over 60,000 farmers in agricultural practices and technologies that increase productivity, Feed the Future’s work in Malawi has also included improving milk yield by 52 percent, organizing more than 23,000 rural Malawians into village savings-and-loan groups.