Drones scatter mosquitoes to fight diseases

Drones that scatter swarms of
sterile mosquitoes over wide areas are being developed to help stop the
spread of diseases such as malaria.

Sterile male mosquitoes cannot
produce offspring when they mate with females. By crowding out other
males, they reduce the mosquito population.
But spreading them is
difficult in areas without roads, so technology organisation WeRobotics
has been developing drones to do the job.
It will trial the idea in 2018.
“Mosquitoes
carry many diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Zika virus. It
makes them one of the biggest animal killers worldwide,” Adam Klaptocz,
WeRobotics co-founder, told the BBC.

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Getty Images

Image caption

Female mosquitoes bite humans

“There are lots of methods to control mosquito
populations – fumigation, insecticide – but they all have downsides.
Insecticide is not good for environment and needs to be constantly
deployed.”
Releasing sterile insects had been an effective method of population control for a variety of species, he said.
Often
the sterile insects are released from backpacks carried by the
scientists, but it is difficult to spread them over a wide area – and
they cannot simply be dumped in one location.
WeRobotics was approached by international aid organisations to help produce a solution.

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Image caption

Fumigation can be expensive

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Image caption

Mosquitoes are exposed to radiation in a lab, which makes the infertile

“A lot of the places where these diseases exist are
also places where roads do not exist. The drones could spread the
mosquitoes where there are no roads,” said Mr Klaptocz.
But one of
the challenges is packing hundreds of thousands of fragile mosquitoes
into a payload without damaging their thin legs and wings.
“A mosquito that comes out of a drone damaged – or dead – is not going to mate with females,” said Mr Klaptocz.
To protect the insects, they are first cooled to 4-8C, putting them into a sleep-like state that stops them moving around.
The next challenge is releasing the insects gradually over a wide area, without waking the whole lot up at once.
To
do so, the team has designed a rotating platform with holes in, through
which individual mosquitoes fall. They land in a holding chamber where
they wake up, and can fly out into the wild.

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t:WeRobotics

Image caption

The green “dosing mechanism” releases a few mosquitoes at a time

“Community engagement is also a key part of the release campaign,” Mr Klaptocz told the BBC.
“We
may be spreading mosquitoes in areas where they are seen as a vector of
death. We need to speak to the local population before a single
mosquito is released.”
The drones are still in development, but the non-profit company hopes to trial its technology in Latin America in 2018.
Mr Klaptocz hopes to focus on areas at risk from Zika virus first.

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