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Scientists Still Plan to Use Drones to Help Track Mosquitoes That Spread Zika

February 21, 2017

Last summer, scientists deployed high-tech mosquito traps around Houston, TX, to help monitor for Zika and other infectious disease. This year, drones might finally be ready to join their arsenal.

The program, called Project Premonition, aims to keep tabs on infectious diseases in the environment and warn public health officials of potential outbreaks. It’s a collaborative effort among Microsoft Research, Vanderbilt University, Johns Hopkins, University of California Riverside, and the University of Pittsburgh. Project Premonition used drones to find and access hard-to-reach sites during a 2014 field project in Grenada, but this will be the first time they’re use for the project in the U.S.

Prior to the 2016 field season, the Project Premonition team had discussed using drones in the first Houston trial, to scout from the air for likely mosquito breeding grounds hidden in the urban landscape. That part of the project didn’t get off the ground last year, though.

“We haven’t deployed drones, really, to do that in an urban environment yet. Frankly, this last year was not a good year for anybody to fly drones in the U.S. due to changes in FAA regulation,” says Ethan Jackson, a software engineering researcher at Microsoft Research.

To collect data, Project Premonition uses a trap that Jackson describes as a “robotic field biologist,” capable of identifying mosquito species as they’re caught. The system then runs the mosquitoes, and the blood samples they’re carrying, through a software pipeline that uses a machine learning algorithm and a massive genetic database to analyze all the genetic material in the sample and provide a detailed picture of what the mosquitoes have bitten and which diseases they’re carrying.

The Project Premonition team, working with the Harris County Department of Public Health, began testing the traps in Houston last summer. “The system was able to correctly identify mosquito species, the animals it had bitten, such as birds and dogs, and recently-discovered viruses,” said Jackson in a recent press conference at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston. “It also uncovered novel viruses, and the analysis of these novel viruses is ongoing.”



Aerial advantage

During a 2014 project in Grenada, a predecessor to the work in Houston, the team used DJI drones to access remote habitats to place and check mosquito traps during an outbreak of the Chikungunya virus. Operating in an urban environment is a different challenge, but with the new commercial drone rules released by the FAA in August 2016, Project Premonition is ready to fly for the first time in the U.S.

Jackson says that using drones as aerial surveyors will be “a huge win” for the project. From about 200 feet in the air, drones equipped with small video cameras are the perfect way to spot the telltale signatures of mosquito hot-spots: buildings with broken windows or open roofs, abandoned cars, containers of standing water, or even the reflection a puddle peeking out from under vegetation.

“The way it’s done today is somebody really needs to go out and explore these neighborhoods. If you take a place like Houston, there’s about 2,000 square miles, and a breeding population of the mosquitoes that carry Zika can be generated from one garbage can full of stagnant water,” says Jackson. It’s like looking for a larvae-infested needle in an urban haystack, but drones in the air can spot things that teams on the ground may miss.

That information will tell researchers where to put the robotic traps that will capture mosquitoes and gather data for a survey of infectious mosquito-borne diseases, called Project Premonition.

Finger’s crossed for summer 2017

This summer, if all goes well, newly-trained employees of the Harris County Department of Public Health will be flying the mosquito-hunting drones. And thanks to the commercial drone rules released last year it’s now easier to obtain drone operators’ licenses, making it feasible for public health agencies to train some of their personnel to fly drones.

“That’s what we’re hoping to see in collaboration with Harris County coming up this mosquito season,” he said, although he acknowledged that nothing is carved in stone just yet. Project Premonition is still working with the county to figure out what the costs of the training will be and how many drone operators the agency is likely to need. They’re breaking new ground, according to Jackson; despite a recent surge of interest in using drones for public health monitoring, very few public health agencies have trained operators on staff.

They’ll be flying drones based on a 3DR platform, which Jackson says the team chose because it’s open-source. “We can start to essentially replace its brains with our new software methods, and that allows us to put more rigorous statements on the safety and what the software is doing,” he said. The team is sharing their progress on a GitHub community. Microsoft Research has put a lot of effort into improving drone safety and autonomy, with an eye toward applications like Project Premonition, in recent years, according to Jackson.

Meanwhile, the Harris County Department of Public Health is talking with Houston-area communities to explain the project and find neighborhoods whose residents would be comfortable with the drones flying around. “That’s a very important part of the conversation as we introduce new sorts of autonomous systems, whether it’s drones or mosquito traps, into the public sphere: making sure the public appreciates it, and they understand why it’s there,” said Jackson.

“I feel like this project offers a good equation to bring drones into the public sphere and do something useful,” he said.

Featured image: pixabay/freeimages

Kiona Smith is a freelance science and tech journalist currently based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she shares her office with a border collie and too many books.

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