The United Nations will test drones equipped with mapping sensors and atomisers to spray pesticides in parts of east Africa battling an invasion of desert locusts that are ravaging crops and exacerbating a hunger crisis.
Hundreds of millions of the voracious insects have swept across Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya in what the UN has called the worst outbreak in a quarter of a century, with Uganda, Eritrea and Djibouti also affected.
Authorities in those countries are already carrying out aerial spraying of pesticides but experts say the scale of the infestation is beyond local capacity as desert locusts can travel up to 150km in a day.
They threaten to increase food shortages in a region where up to 25 million people are reeling from three consecutive years of droughts and floods, aid agencies have said.
Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said specially developed prototypes would be tested that can detect swarms via special sensors and adapt their speed and height accordingly.
“Nobody’s ever done this with desert locusts before. So we have no proven methodology for using drones for spraying on locusts,” said Cressman.
“There are already small atomiser sprayers made for drones. But with locusts, we just don’t know how high and how fast to fly.”
The swarms – one reportedly measuring 40km by 60km – have already devoured tens of thousands of hectares of crops such as maize, sorghum and teff as well as ravaging pasture for livestock.
By June, the fast-breeding locusts could grow by 500 times and move into South Sudan.