Drones are often compared to mosquitos: the high pitch whine, the stigma, the general level of aerial annoyance felt by the public. But now the technology is being used to counter the insects, as part of a UNICEF project in Malawi that aims to boost the fight against malaria.
Last year, the government of Malawi and UNICEF launched an air corridor to put drones to the test for several humanitarian applications. At the time it was the first corridor of its kind in Africa, and one of the few chunks of airspace in the world dedicated solely to the development of humanitarian technologies.
Several drone projects have been developed in the area, including for the transport of medical supplies, and the mapping of cholera outbreaks. The next target is battling malaria, the mosquito-borne disease that kills more than one million people every year, with the majority of those being children under the age of five.
Mapping mosquitos to fight disease
The relationship between malaria and water is an important one. Female mosquitos search for bodies of water to use as breeding grounds. Finding these areas – particularly as the seasons change – is key to keeping mosquito numbers down and saving lives, via environmental management techniques.
In an article for The Conversation, , medical research council fellow at Lancaster University, and , a senior lecturer in vector biology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and member of the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, describe how mapping breeding sites could be a huge step in reducing mosquito numbers.
“Not only could mapping mosquito breeding sites determine which areas are prone to malaria transmission, they could also provide the information to reduce mosquito numbers in water bodies through environmental management. Prevent mosquitoes from breeding – especially in those sparsely available sites in the dry season – and we could make a significant impact on local malaria cases,” they write.
Together with UNICEF, the researchers have been studying whether aerial images captured by drones can simplify the search for mosquito breeding grounds; it goes without saying that drones can cover large areas with ease and gather huge amounts of data in a single flight.
To date, the team has been analysing this data using the human eye – a method that, though effective, can be time-consuming and requires significant training. As a result, there may be scope for automating that process in the future using AI. Meanwhile, surveys on the ground remain an important factor.
A machine learning algorithm trained to recognise potential mosquito breeding sites could be the next logical step in the programme and help teams on the ground take action more quickly.
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The UNICEF project illustrates the huge potential that autonomous systems have in the fight against malaria and other diseases. Aside from mapping, the technology has also been used to introduce sterile mosquitos to populations in South America in an effort to slow down the Zika virus.
Throughout the world, drones have helped first responders and search and rescue teams to save lives, while in Rwanda, drones are being used to deliver critical blood supplies and medicines to remote rural areas – a technology that may be deployed worldwide.