Drones may soon be used to help stop insect-borne diseases like malaria, scientists hope to use drone tech to unleash swarms of sterile male mosquitoes to prevent the spread of these diseases.
The key to this plan is the use of sterile males, because they cannot reproduce with females. Even if females ignore them, they will still be able to prevent access to a large number of normal males simply due to their numbers. Making normal males more difficult to access will hopefully reduce mosquito populations significantly.
Spreading sterile males in more rural areas would be difficult if scientists had to rely on manpower, so WeRobotics, a technology organization, is trying to develop drones that can do this instead. The organization hopes to test their idea by 2018, so plan to see developments soon.
The co founder of WeRobotics, Adam Klaptocz, has been working towards preventing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever, Zika virus, and malaria for a long time, and for good reason: mosquitoes are one of the most dangerous animal killers in the world.
And while there are a variety of population control methods that can be used on mosquitoes, all of the methods that are commonly used can have extremely negative side effects.
Klaptocz has stated that sterile insects have been released in other species’ populations, and scientists have observed those populations decline as a result. Usually, sterile insects are distributed manually, by scientists releasing them out of backpacks into the field. This method is effective in smaller areas, but makes wider distribution extremely difficult, because for the method to be effective, the insects must be spread out over a large area.
International aid groups saw a chance to make changes to the traditional distribution methods, and so they approached WeRobotics for help. Klaptocz and WeRobotics were aware that they would have to find a solution that took into account the rural nature of many of the regions affected by mosquito-borne diseases had in common: the lack of roads. Drones would be able to travel to more isolated locations to distribute the sterile males.
Obviously, WeRobotics had to figure out a way to carry hundreds of thousands of insects in a payload without killing or otherwise harming their anatomy. Any dead or injured sterile males would not be able to mate, rendering them useless in the population control efforts. The mosquitoes are cooled to between 4 and 8 Celsius, to cause them to be more lethargic and less likely to move during packing and travel.
The actual release can also be tricky, because the mosquitoes need to be released gradually over a large area. WeRobotics designed a platform with several holes in it; the platform will rotate, allowing mosquitoes to fall out, one by one. The insects will land in a holding chamber until they wake up from their cold naps, and then fly out to mate with females.
WeRobotics also recognizes the importance of creating a dialogue with local populations. It is important to speak to local populations about the project about their work, so that they don’t think that the organization is simply releasing hundreds of thousands of dangerous insects into the air and making the situation worse.
WeRobotics hopes to test their ideas in Latin America in regions that are prone to Zika virus issues some time in 2018, and the drones are currently still being developed.