Philippines readies drones to assess disasters' impact on agriculture

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Philippines readies drones to assess disasters' impact on agriculture

Related tags: Agriculture

In a bid to stay ahead of the negative impacts of climate change and natural disasters, the Philippines government has started to use unmanned aerial drones to assess where farmlands are most at risk and quickly assess the damage they face.

Under a pilot phase of the fledgling project funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, two drones have already been sent over the Philippines provinces that have been affected by the current El Niño.

Some 25 FAO and government technical experts will be deployed across the archipelago to support drone missions. They were recently trained over three weeks on flying the drones and learned a range of remote aerial assessment methods.

The drones are equipped with navigation and photogrammetric equipment that can generate detailed and data-rich maps from aerial photographs including normalised difference vegetation index, a formula used for assessing vegetation and plant health. 

Data gathered can be used to see where agricultural systems are at particular risk from natural disasters, and identify ways through which such risks can be countered, such as through ground contouring, building retaining walls or planting protective vegetation. 

Capable of covering up to 600 hectares a day, the drones should significantly accelerate the process of risk analysis, according to Christopher Morales, director of field operations for the Philippines Department of Agriculture.

"It is efficient, it saves time and we will be using a reliable source of data so that we can plan and provide appropriate interventions and responses for our farmers in times of disasters and calamities​," Morales said.

Jose Luiz Fernandez, FAO representative in the Philippines, added: “Additionally, imagery generated from drone flights can reveal where agricultural infrastructure projects and service facilities like irrigation or storage facilities could be sited to best serve local farmers. The technology can also potentially support in the assessment of coastal and forest areas​."

The Philippines is particularly at risk countries from tropical storms and other disasters.

Over the past decade, earthquakes, typhoons and floods have claimed thousands of human lives and periodically left parts of the archipelago's infrastructure and economy in tatters.

Such disasters impact heavily on farms and food systems, leaving people without food in their immediate aftermath and undermining food production capacity for years afterwards.

Approximately 20 substantial typhoons affect the Philippines each year. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan alone devastated 600,000 hectares of farmland and caused over US$700m in damage to agriculture. In addition, the country is also highly vulnerable to other natural hazards, such as drought, flooding and volcanic eruptions. 

Elsewhere across the globe as well, nearly a quarter of all damage inflicted by natural hazards such as drought, floods, storms or tsunamis in the developing world are absorbed by the agriculture sector, FAO studies have shown.

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