Kenya Red Cross gathers multispectral drone data to help manage the worst locust invasion in 70 years

This year, climate conditions in East Africa and Southwest Asia have transformed an insect that’s usually a quiet, solitary grasshopper into an overwhelming invasion of desert locusts. This surreal phenomenon happens sometimes in these parts of the world; however, this year is particularly intense. Typical locust swarms include tens of billions of flying insects and can span from less than 1 mi2 (2.6 km2) to 100 mi2 (260 km2). This year, in Northern Kenya, one swarm was reported to be 24 times the size of Paris.

The locusts migrate and devour any crops in their way. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said this year’s invasion could threaten food security for 10 percent of the world’s population. Kenya has been hit particularly bad. So the FAO contracted the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) to survey affected areas with the WingtraOne, and they were able to provide vital data on affected areas across seven counties, in one week. 

Time constraints, pandemic/limited travel options, large areas, rapid invasion progress

WingtraOne offered high-resolution aerial imagery to complement other measures of damages so far. FAO also needed to see if control measures like insecticides were working. So this data capture mission looked at efficacy and impact.

Safia Verjee
Innovations Manager, KRCS 

A lesson from the locusts: VTOL flight is efficient

According to the contract with the FAO, the KRCS had a month to procure data for 16 counties. With this tight deadline and pandemic restrictions on travel, the team chose seven counties to fly over.

“The idea with this data is to show areas that were affected so decisions could be made about how to go forward with recovery efforts,” Verjee said. “FAO can also correlate observations back to areas that were sprayed to see effects, because we got feedback from the communities that birds were dying and the livestock seemed unwell due to the spraying.”

Each flight—with Wingtra’s MicaSense RedEdge-MX payload—covered between 60 and 70 ha (150 and 170 ac) in around 30 to 40 minutes. KRCS combined the multispectral drone data with information from interviews and direct observation. They relied on RGB, NDVI and advanced vegetation index layer map outputs to extract vital information. 

So when we looked at the migration route of the locusts, it seemed like these were the counties that were badly affected. And they were close enough to each other that it was logistically possible with WingtraOne given the short timeline and travel restrictions during lockdown.

Safia Verjee
Innovations Manager, KRCS 

The right equipment at the right time

The last time such an invasion happened in this part of the world, tools to mitigate it barely existed. This time around, agencies scramble to develop strategies with whatever technology is available and on-hand. KRCS had luckily upgraded their drone survey technology to WingtraOne just several months before the invasion.

“We tried to run a survey mission with a Mavic Pro in a refugee camp, in Dadaab,” explained Taariq Twaha, head of ICT at KRCS. “That was much more difficult [than using WingtraOne] because it’s not a large-scale mapping drone. It was slower, lots of battery changes, and then managing the data and processing it was challenging. I think we had like 10,000 images, too.” 

After attempting to survey with a multirotor, the team looked for a fixed-wing solution, Twaha said. Yet it was also important to find a solution equipped with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) to ensure the longevity of the equipment and avoid potential crash-like belly landings. WingtraOne checked all of their boxes. Soon, the invasion began, and it proved its worth gathering loads of rich, high-quality information in a short time.

“If we had used a multirotor, what would happen is that we’d have done fewer areas, because this was a very short consultancy,” Twaha said. “A week to do flying, a week to do the processing and then the last two weeks to finalize the report. 

With a multirotor, this would have meant shorter missions in fewer places, which may not have provided enough evidence to support any of the findings that we got with this mission.

Taariq Twaha
Head of ICT, KRCS 

Household in rural Kenya
Rural Kenya features households directly dependent on vegetation and livestock. Larger farms that serve urban areas are also impacted by the locust invasion.

How drone data helps manage locust plague effects

As the locust swarms migrate and destroy crops, all that people on the ground can do is gather evidence to estimate damage and whether anything they spray works. Drone data has so far offered a clear view of what has been lost in terms of food security.

“The locust invasion threatens household food security in terms of farmers who sell their crops and livestock,” said Verjee. “No harvest means overall health, milk production and meat production decreases. This has a major effect on livelihoods, and with better data we can measure and anticipate real impacts.

“The data we’ve gathered with WingtraOne provides powerful evidence, allowing better decisions to be made as this invasion continues. The more evidence, the more fine-tuned the response; for example, maybe this spray isn’t working and it’s making animals sick so the method needs to be changed.”

In the end, Verjee said KRCS is happy with the quality of the data gathered by WingtraOne and the insights it was able to provide. It’s been a powerful case study for the organization’s further use of the technology to provide vital data. 

The aerial images of the invasion impact how seriously people take it in terms of decision making and fundraising around our work. If we have a few more WingtraOne’s and a bigger team, we can conduct ongoing assessments, not only for locust invasions, but also for flooding, crop analysis, things like that.

Safia Verjee
Innovations Manager, KRCS 

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