Oakland University prof brings agricultural drone tech to Malawi

 Professor Jon Carroll flies his drone in front of a crowd of Malawian onlookers

Professor Jon Carroll flies his drone in front of a crowd of Malawian onlookers

Farmers in the US and other developed countries have a variety of high-tech tools on hand to help them achieve the highest crop yields possible, including drones that use aerial imagery to determine where plants are under stress from insects, lack of water or a need for fertilizers. Now an anthropology professor from Oakland University has taken agricultural drone technology to Liwonde, Malawi to help local farmers in optimizing their crop production. 

Jon Carroll is an assistant professor in OU’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, as well as a registered professional archaeologist and an FAA-licensed drone pilot. He traveled to Malawi to help farmers improve crop yields as part of the “Precision Agriculture for Smallholder Systems in Africa” project, which is associated with the US government’s Feed the Future global hunger and food security initiative. 

Carroll was asked to join the Feed the Future team because of his experience with UAVs. With the fixed-wing drone Carroll used, his team was able to create multispectral aerial images showing crop health. According to Carroll, “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. This approach is widely available in the U.S., but in Africa, they simply don’t have access to these technologies. The answer could be water or fertilizer, or it may be that they are growing the wrong types of crops for that soil.”

 In this multispectral image of a field, green indicates healthy crops while red denotes areas under stress

In this multispectral image of a field, green indicates healthy crops while red denotes areas under stress

Malawi’s farmers have been suffering from repeated drought over the past years, with the result that 38% of Malawians live below the poverty line and almost half of all children are malnourished.  

As with drone flights in the US, curious crowds showed up whenever Carroll would fly the drone. Carroll noted that “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,” he said. “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.”

Photo Credits: Oakland University