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Combating desert locust plague: Drone Technology

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Pakistán
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Dr. Tasneem Ahmad

Three definitions of drone, as noun, are common in dictionaries. The drone is, i) a stingless male bee or honeybee that has the single role of mating with the queen and is not responsible for collecting of nectar or pollen like workers bee, as an entomologist, this definition was read in university, ii) one that lives on the labors of others: means a parasite, again as a biologist’s definition and iii) an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers.

In the instant article we will use the third and most popular definition i.e. an aircraft that does not have a pilot but is controlled by someone on the ground, known especially for dropping bombs or for surveillance mostly used by the US armed forces. Drones are also used for delivery purpose, for hobby, as a camera fitted one for photography and now even for spraying chemicals on crops and surveillance of crops and pests etc.

This innovation is also useful in farming, means an agricultural drone is used to help optimize agriculture operations, increase crop production and monitor crop growth. Sensors and digital imaging capabilities on such drone can give farmers a richer picture of their fields and hence, these views can assist in assessing crop growth and production.

Two types of drones are available, one with rotary wings and the other with fixed wings. Both can be used for survey and management of desert locust.

Reportedly previous year, FAO DLIS, together with several other partners, investigated the adoption of drone technology for use in locust early warning and preventive control, specifically to address some current challenges. It is added that desert locust breeds and develops gregarious phase in desert where green vegetation is germinated and grown after rainfall. Hence the challenge is to find more accurately a relatively small green patch of vegetation within the vast areas of the desert that may possibly contain locust infestations. A survey team could launch a fixed-wing drone that would go out on a fixed route to take photographs of the territory. After surveillance of area, drone return to the team who would process the data and then go directly to areas that are green to check for any locust population. Secondly, to find out the spatial extent of green vegetation at a particular location and identify locust infestations within this area. On the other hand, a rotary-wing drone would hover over the desert and photograph the area of the vegetation and record any concentrations of hopper or adult groups. Additional information is then required to improve the safety and effectiveness of control operations. The use of a rotary-wing drone for specific spot spraying, thus avoiding pesticide drift and operator contamination is the better option.

However, the experts recommend that before drones can be operationally used in locust work, a number of issues need to be addressed and resolved.

This may involve a substantial amount of research and field testing. For example, a fixed-wing drone that searches for green vegetation should have a range of at least 100 km (ideally, or more) and be solar powered.

The main objective of drone is to find out green vegetation and consequently the locust concentrations by keeping optimal flying heights of the machine. Photos obtained by the drone will need to be processed easily and rapidly in the field so the team can decide where to survey or control. The drones should be easy to control both manually and automatically. They will need to be affordable, portable, robust, and easy to maintain locally in locust-affected countries. The issues including sensitive areas and legal requirements pertaining to drones will also need to be solved. Many organizations are doing research efforts to make it ideal in locust surveillance and management.

Although trials are underway to develop prototypes that can detect swarms via special sensors and adapt their speed and height accordingly. As nobody has ever done this work against desert locusts before, hence no proven methodology of drones for spraying on locusts is available.

However, it is encouraging that small atomiser sprayers made for drones are already available, yet to find out the height as well as speed of drone for locusts, are to ascertained.

Existing drone models are restricted to carry limited volumes and covering of inadequate distances due to their small size and less battery life, say entomologists and plant protection researchers.

Another challenge for drone use in locust emergencies is the lack of regulation. Many 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 petrol-powered engines capable of carrying tanks of up to 1500 litres and travelling distances of up to 500 km, and often require special approval.

Drones can also be used in the aftermath of an infestation, or in post-disaster mapping to assess the damage caused by the menace. Governments need to ascertain the extent of the damage afterwards. Combining larger satellite maps with smaller drone maps – which provide higher resolution images – will give more accurate assessments on the extent of crop loss and its health.

Reports indicate that in India as soon as locust swarms make inroads into the interiors of Rajasthan, Punjab and even parts of Madhya Pradesh, the Centre government has allowed the conditional use of drones, for spraying pesticides to curb the entered pest. The Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage (DPPQS), Faridabad, under the Agriculture Ministry has been made the nodal agency for the anti-locust operations. DPPQS may operate their owned drones or engage in third-party service providers. However, the conditional exemption will be limited to the drones deployed by the nodal agency for aerial surveillance, aerial photography, public announcement and spraying of anti-locust pesticides, and the exemption shall be limited to battery operated rotary-wing drones only.

The agency has reported that spraying of pesticides using drones is considered highly effective over traditional methods such as tractor mounted sprayers and fire brigade among others, as it can help kill the swarms in resting position.

In Australia, drones are now providing an innovative alternative to the more expensive use of light aircrafts. These aerial vehicles can be used to remotely sense areas, carry out pest surveillance and monitor crop growth. They also allow for targeted pesticide application through atomiser sprayers that deliver a fine and even spray from liquid. Understanding the movement of locusts helps determine the best way to control crop damage. On-ground internet-connected sensors with thermal and image processing capabilities could also potentially be used to monitor the spread of infestations. These could provide additional real-time monitoring to support satellite imagery.

However, the experts have noticed a few limitations when it comes to using drones to tackle locust problems. Drones don’t perform well in areas that are densely packed with locusts, due to damage to propellers. And while the technical specifications of drones have made rapid improvements over the past few years, they still only provide a limited load of insecticide for spraying.

The duration of flying time for drones is also usually less than an hour. Flying drones requires a degree of expertise, and any commercial drone flying requires certification from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Now have a look at our latest reports on drone technology for fighting desert locust in Pakistan. A leading newspaper reported on 5 March 2020 that China has agreed to assist Pakistan to combat the menace in various parts of the country with $5 million technical support besides providing 50 drones and 300,000 litres of pesticides to carry out spray in affected areas of Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab. Secretary of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research told that the Chinese government had decided to send drones urgently, and the first batch of drones would reach Pakistan on March 9. He added that the use of fixed and rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are potential means of improving desert locust monitoring, early warning and rapid control, and reducing costs of survey and control operations. Similarly, he claimed, the Chinese authorities would also send technical staff to carry out operation and train staff of the Plant Protection Department and concerned provincial departments, and first batch of drones were due to arrive soon.

After the above reports, there was complete silence and none of the sides came up and no report was found about the project. Then comes June10, 2020. A news by APP said that a leading Chinese company has expressed willingness to set up an industrial unit in Pakistan to manufacture drones that can be used to protect crops and control locust.

According to the chief engineer of the firm, from factory construction, production, assembly, after-sales to personnel training, they can provide complete technical support to help Pakistan set up a drone manufacturing industry to quickly respond to various types of disasters. He added that their drones can accurately sense the distance from the plant canopy during flight and the maintaining of relative height of the entire operation process remains unchanged to ensure accurate and effective spraying of pesticides.

To conclude, it can be claimed that the drone technology is an innovation being tried in the world from crop protection to assessment of crop production and aftermath of any disastrous or pest outbreak. It will give encouraging results if applied in combating desert locust in Pakistan too.

tasneem91@yahoo.com

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