UK university helps UN develop AI to monitor Afghanistan’s opium cultivation


In a statement, the United Kingdom-based Cranfield University, on Monday, said that their researchers are helping the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) powered program that would monitor the crops used for illicit opium production in Afghanistan. According to the university, their AI would interpret data from satellites to track where the poppy cultivation, used for drug production, takes place. 

This comes months after the UN agency conducted a survey which showed that opium cultivation in Afghanistan was up by 32 per cent, it was also the first report since the Taliban had banned the cultivation of opium poppy and all narcotics in April 2022 after they took over the year before. At least 80 per cent of all illicit opium is produced in Kabul, said the UNODC and this increase in cultivation made the 2022 crop the third largest area under cultivation since monitoring began. 


“This is a hugely significant project to be involved with. In terms of Afghanistan, we’re talking about opium production on a grand scale – something like the combined size of 500,000 rugby pitches – so a huge amount of cultivation,” said Dr Daniel Simms, a professor in Remote Sensing at Cranfield University. He also noted how automating the monitoring process would save many hours. The partnership between the UN and the university will last until July 2023. 

According to the UNODC findings since the Taliban imposed the ban the opium prices have soared while the income of farmers from opium sales has tripled from $425 million in 2021 to $1.4 in 2022. “The international community must work to address the acute needs of the Afghan people, and to step up responses to stop the criminal groups trafficking heroin and harming people in countries around the world,” the UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly had said when the findings were published, in November. 


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