Oakland University professor uses UAS to combat ill effects of climate change on crops in Africa

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Oakland University professor Jon Carroll, Ph.D., is part of a team of scholars that is using UAS technology to “promote sustainable agriculture in Africa.”

Recently, Carroll, who is also an FAA-licensed UAS pilot and a Registered Professional Archaeologist, traveled to Liwonde, Malawi to work on a research project called “Precision Agriculture for Smallholder Systems in Africa,” which is helping farmers boost crop production in the face of emerging threats posed by climate change.

The project is part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the project is in collaboration with Michigan State University’s Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, and Kansas State University’s Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab.

While in graduate school at Michigan State, Carroll worked with the Center for Global Change. He was asked to join the project thanks in large part to his expertise in using UAS for a variety of research endeavors, including archaeological excavations in Israel and a historical survey of Chateau de Balleroy, a 17th-century castle in Normandy, France.

“They knew of the work I had been doing in different parts of the world, and they thought that drone capability would be a great asset to the project,” Carroll says.

A UAS is useful in the process of trying to counter the ill effects of climate change on crops because it can provide high-precision aerial photography that helps researchers assess crop health.

“What we are doing is bringing highly detailed aerial imagery together with weather station data to understand what’s going on with these farm fields,” Carroll explains.

“This approach is widely available in the U.S., but in Africa they simply don’t have access to these technologies.”

Using special cameras, the UAS captures images that allow researchers to quantify how much water and chlorophyll is in the plants, which allows for 3-D measurements of plants in different parts of the field.

Researchers can use this data to recommend potential fixes to low crop yields.

“The answer could be water or fertilizer, or it may be that they are growing the wrong types of crops for that soil,” Carroll says.

Researchers are also working to develop models that can “better predict seasonal and environmental patterns,” which have been disrupted by climate change.

According to USAID, recurring droughts have devastated Malawi’s agriculture sector, which threatens the livelihoods of Malawi’s smallholder farmers, who make up 80 percent of the country's population. Another alarming fact in the country is that 38 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line and 47 percent of children have stunted growth.

“It’s a big problem, potentially disastrous,” Carroll says. “We went down there in February because that’s their growing season, and it didn’t rain once while we were there.”

While in Malawi, Carroll’s research team worked with other research groups, including government officials and scholars from Malawi and other places. For children and families in the community, this technology was a source of fascination, and on the whole, there was an influx of visitors who were interested in seeing the work being done using UAS.

“This is an area where people are just not used to seeing this type of technology, so any time that I flew the drone, we always had a crowd,” Carroll says.

“Entire families would come out to see what was going on, and I would make it a point to try to explain to the people what we were doing and answer their questions, either in English or through an interpreter.”

Ultimately for Carroll, his time in Malawi was “one of the most profound” research experiences of his life.

“I’ve worked in different parts of the world, usually on archaeological questions, and most of the people that I study have been gone for hundreds or thousands of years,” Carroll says. “This was a very different kind of project because I was surrounded by the people who were going to be affected by this research.”