FAO’s handheld technology helps countries tackle locust invasions
They may be small, but they are mighty. Wreaking havoc on crops, locusts are one of the oldest migratory pests in the world and a serious threat to agricultural production and food security.
If infestations are not detected early, massive plagues can develop that often take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring under control. A plague of Desert Locusts, one of the most dangerous locust species of all, can easily affect 20 percent of the Earth's land, potentially damaging the livelihoods of one tenth of the world's population.
Tens of millions of locusts can fly up to 150 kilometres a day with the wind, covering vast areas. An adult Desert Locust can consume roughly its own weight, about 2 grams, in fresh food per day. To put that into perspective, even a very small swarm will eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35 000 people. This has severe consequences on food security – the impact can be truly devastating.
For over 40 years, FAO has been helping at-risk countries win the fight against locust infestations. To do so, data is key. FAO has developed a ground-breaking tool that allows field teams across the world to map the movements of locusts across countries and kick start action to bring a swarm under control before it does severe damage.
FAO’s eLocust3 is a handheld tablet and custom app, available in English, French and Arabic, that records and transmits data in real time via satellite to the national locust centres and to the Desert Locust Information Service (DLIS) based in the FAO headquarters in Rome. Since 2015, 450 of these handheld devices have been distributed to field teams across 24 countries in northern Africa, the Near East and southwest Asia, allowing them to transfer real-time data from jeeps in the middle of the desert straight to their national locust office and to the operation centre in FAO’s headquarters.
National locust information officers, all of whom go through 11 months of rigorous training in Rome, lead field teams to collect, collate and analyse the data and share it with neighbouring countries.
FAO’s around-the-clock monitoring of data and satellite imagery allows for the creation of forecasts up to six weeks in advance. eLocust3 data give the DLIS a broad picture of exactly where the locusts are across the world, allowing the centre to predict flight patterns and give early warnings to at-risk countries, who can then launch control operations.
Field teams do an excellent job of collecting data, but in countries like Mauritania or the Sudan, which have deserts larger than the surface area of Italy, it can be almost impossible to reach every corner. Although satellite-based estimates of rainfall and green vegetation can help field teams to focus on smaller areas, images can suffer from errors and are often available too late.
To tackle this problem, FAO is working on utilising drone technology alongside the existing eLocust3 kits to give field teams the chance to survey more effectively and cover wider areas.
The fixed-wing drone would be capable of flying around 100 kilometres while collecting data on the location of green vegetation, processing this imagery as a map. In turn, the map would guide survey teams on the ground to areas of up to 5 kilometres in size for further inspection using a rotary drone.
If significant infestations are found, then a control drone can even safely and effectively spray pesticides, stopping the locusts before they form swarms and minimizing pesticide exposure to humans. A prototype of these drones should be available to countries in 2020.
Locusts and other transboundary pests are a worldwide problem. Coordinated and timely efforts across borders are necessary to ensure effective containment and prevention of plagues.
As a neutral body, FAO is well placed to offer expertise even in sensitive areas. In 2019, FAO took part for the first time in a Joint Border Meeting between India and Pakistan to exchange information about the current Desert Locust control operations in both countries. FAO’s participation in this meeting was recognition of the importance of its expertise and work in this area.
The eLocust3 and drone initiatives are concrete examples of how we can solve age-old problems with innovation. New technology – but most importantly, the application of that technology in innovative new ways – is key to overcoming the challenges of today. With this mindset, strong global partnerships between countries and organisations, and innovative solutions applied on a global scale, we can work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.