Anthropology professor deploys drones to fight disease in Africa


Nicole Morsfield

Assistant professor of anthropology Jon Carroll visited Malawi, Africa over the summer to research the use of drones in preventing the spread of malaria.

Rachel Yim, Science & Technology Reporter

Jon Carroll, a professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, visited Malawi, Africa this summer to assess the capability of drones in helping prevent the spread of malaria.

Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa and it is among the world’s least-developed countries. Its economy is highly dependent on agriculture, and it’s facing many challenges in expanding economy, healthcare and environmental protection.

Made up of individuals from Michigan State University and the University of Alabama, Carroll’s research team spent nine days in Malawi collecting data to test the efficacy of the drone imagery in detecting areas in need of improvement.

“The idea of our project was that given the impact of climate change, it’s going to make people want a lot of different environments, so we had to come up with a new strategy for growing food,” Carroll said.

He also mentioned that the most difficult part of coming up with a new strategy was to figure out every situation on an individual farm-level from many standards and imagery taken from a satellite or an aircraft.

“So, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could use drones to help take special photos of individual farmsteads and collect lights that you can’t see with naked eyes?” Carroll said.

Carroll and his research team also hope the drone imagery can help develop strategies that allow water to more efficiently flow through the irrigation scheme, which will avoid stagnation that helps mosquitoes to breed. Through the process, they found a couple of different ways drones can help the Malawi community.

“[We] believed that the drone imagery would be effective in helping to assess an irrigate landscapes — what’s getting water, what’s not getting water and also where’s water stagnating?” he said. “Because stagnating water causes mosquitoes to breed.”

Carroll not only participated in this research project in Malawi for crop health assessments of each individual farm, but he also has active research projects for archaeology elsewhere — near East (Israel), France and the Great Lakes region.

Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development on a grant for sustainable intensification, this aid-sponsored program gave Carroll and his research team the opportunity to perform crop-health assessments for each individual farm. And in that, drones played a key role.

“[The drone] was a proof of a concept to fill in the gap between the data you can get from the satellite and actually have it stand there on it,” Carroll said.

Along with the drone assessment, the team was able to hold a lecture on their research at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Malawi. It was a meaningful opportunity to talk to professors and students about how they might be able to find a path to use similar technology on a daily basis, according to Carroll.

“We do intend to apply for more grant funding through the U.S. Agency [for] International Development and take what we’ve done so far to the next level,” he said. “But the first phase we just finished was kind of a proof of concept. The next phase, if funded, will be to figure out what does it take to get this technology out to people who need it.”