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Drones vs locusts: Battling swarms with aerial search and destroy missions

The Food and Agricultural Organization is actively exploring the use of drones in locust early warning and preventive control

Image credit: FAO/Sven Torfinn

With confirmed cases around the globe nearing the 10 million mark, COVID-19 continues to demand ingenuity from countries big and small. But for some of the world’s poorest and most fragile nations, the novel coronavirus is only a part of the problem.

Vast areas of East Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia are being threatened by a plague of biblical proportions. Since December 2019, swarms of the Desert Locust – the most dangerous of all migratory pest species – have moved rapidly across dozens of countries, devouring food crops and forage.

Understanding a crisis within a crisis

Locusts are ravenous eaters and can fly up to 150 km a day in search of new supplies. Though an adult locust measures only about the size of a human index finger, it can consume food equaling their own weight in a single day. And let’s not forget that locusts reproduce quickly. Also, they like to move around in groups or swarms.

To give you some context, a single square kilometer of a locust swarm can contain anywhere from 40 to 80 million adult locusts, that have the capacity to consume the same amount of food as 35,000 people in one day alone. And swarms can get really big – around 1,100 square kilometers big. So, basically, you have a situation where a swarm the size of Paris ends up eating the same amount of food in one day as half the population of France!

This year, unprecedented climatic conditions have provided an exceptional breeding ground for the desert locust. The COVID-19 induced movement restrictions and breakdown in supply chains have only made matters worse. This has led the World Food Programme to declare that at least 40 million people in locust-hit countries will face severe food shortage in 2020.

How drones can help

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is actively exploring the use of drones in locust early warning and preventive control. Though it is known that small vegetation patches amid large arid areas serve as the prime feeding grounds for locusts, from the ground, it is often hard to locate these green regions. Therefore, drones could be used to:

  • Survey the terrain

  • Once the data is processed and green spots identified, go directly to those areas and check for locusts

  • Determine the spatial extent of green vegetation at a particular location and map any concentrations of hopper or adult locusts within this area

  • Undertake spot control by spraying pesticides on targeted missions – especially in areas which are difficult for the field teams to access

India, which is witnessing its worst locust crisis in almost three decades, has been successful in containing the movement of locusts through pesticide-spraying drones. The country's early-adoption case studies could definitely offer FAO an opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of drone technology.

Image credit: FAO

Keith Cressman, Senior Locust Forecasting Officer at FAO, agrees. “We are still in the experimental phase when it comes to drones, but it is clear that these kinds of tools will become more important in the years to come," Cressman says.

Certainly, the integration of drones in locust monitoring, prevention, and management activities can lead to a decline in the frequency and intensity of infestations. Drones would allow ground teams to cover much larger and difficult-to-reach areas with ease, making the operations more effective and minimizing the risk to humans.


Ishveena is an independent journalist and writer with a passion for drones and location technologies. In the last 12 years, she has worked with both mainstream media organizations (Miami Herald International, Times of India, Microsoft MSN), and dedicated geospatial technology media (Geospatial World, Geoawesomeness). With a deep understanding of content marketing and social media, Ishveena also helps private companies (DJI, Terra Drone Corporation) to generate qualified leads through useful and timely content. When she is not making magic at her desk, Ishveena likes to take road trips, eat her way through life, or binge-watch TV shows. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter


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