WeRobotics is using drone technology to deliver sterile mosquitos to areas impacted by high numbers of the flying insects. The aim is to bring down the mosquito population and reduce the number of people killed by diseases they carry.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that diseases carried by mosquitos kill 725,000 people every year. Malaria is responsible for the vast majority of deaths, but the ever-present flying insects also carry dengue fever, the Zika virus, yellow fever and encephalitis.
Plenty of techniques are already deployed to bring this number down, from simple nets and vaccinations, to attempts to stop the mosquito population at source. One of the most common approaches is the mass spraying of areas with insecticides – but this is inefficient and expensive, not to mention the environmental damage it does and the fact that mosquitos are quickly able to develop resistance to the chemicals.
Introducing sterile mosquitos
One method of controlling the mosquito population is to introduce sterile males into the equation. Although this will cause a short-term spike in mosquito numbers, it’s only the females that bite humans. The aim is that sterile males will continue to compete for mates, crowding out rivals for female attention and eventually reduce overall numbers.
The biggest challenge is finding an effective way to deliver these sterile mosquitos into areas of need, which are often remote and poorly served by transport infrastructure. Until now, most of the legwork has been done by scientists carrying backpacks full of bugs. But now, a company funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), WeRobotics, is assigning drones to the task.
Drone delivery with a difference
WeRobotics’ mosquito drone delivery project is being tested at the prototype stage in South America. The ability to fly and control the drone is the easy part. More challenging is the storage of hundreds of thousands of mosquitos and their smooth release into the wild.
“Mosquitoes are very fragile animals,” said WeRobotics cofounder Adam Klaptocz. “If you put hundreds of thousands of them into a very small box, they’re going to damage themselves, and damaged mosquitoes will not be able to compete with wild mosquitoes.”
The first step toward ensuring the mosquitos aren’t damaged in transit is to keep them sedated. To do that, they are kept inside pre-cooled container between 4 °C and 8 °C.
The next hurdle is to figure out a way to release them without simply dropping them all at the same time.
“We tried different systems to get the mosquitoes out of the holding canister, including vibrations and a treadmill,” said Klaptocz. “Right now, we’re using a rotating element with holes through which individual mosquitoes can fall.”
After the mosquitoes have fallen through the rotating element, they spend a few seconds in a secondary chamber to acclimatize to the air outside before being dropped from the drone.
Out in the wild
Sterilized male mosquitos will be parachuted into the wild as soon as late 2017, as the WeRobotics team conducts its first experiments with the new drone system. The next step, according to Klaptocz, will be to run “controlled tests, where we mark the insects, release them, and recapture them in traps to measure whether they’re healthy or not”.
Another factor will be education. The company is well aware that flying drones over rural communities and releasing more mosquitos into the wild without explanation won’t do them any favors.
“We’re trying to control disease vectors,” Klaptocz said. “But practically, what we’re doing is releasing a whole bunch of mosquitoes into communities and flying drones over them. Engagement with these communities has to be done from the beginning, by talking to people and involving them in the process.”