Microsoft prepping drone army to catch mosquitoes

The main problem with disease outbreaks – aside from the obvious – is that you don’t become aware of them until it’s too late. It isn’t until people start getting sick in large enough numbers that doctors and researchers realise they’re dealing with a full-blown epidemic.

Microsoft prepping drone army to catch mosquitoes

A new initiative from Microsoft is looking to tackle this problem head on. Project Premonition aims to capture mosquitoes, some of the worst offenders of infections diseases, more efficiently in order to study what pathogens – both known and unknown – they’re carrying.

And they’re going to use semi-autonomous drones to do it.

Capturing mosquitoes for study is currently an inefficient process. The traps used have barely changed in 60-plus years: they use expensive batteries, often require chemicals that are too dangerous to transport by aircraft and, in ideal conditions, use dry ice as bait – which can’t be accessed in parts of Africa. Placing the traps near livestock or even humans sleeping under mosquito nets is a make-shift solution, but obviously not a good one.

Worst of all, the traps pick up bugs indiscriminately, meaning researchers then have the unenviable job of sifting through the “soup” of  insects to pick out the mosquitoes. “It’s like looking for this one Lego guy’s head in the pile of Lego,” Professor Douglas Norris of John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explains on the Microsoft blog.

The answer, Microsoft reckons, is to transfer these portable mosquito traps via drones.project-premonition-traps-1024x576

As you might expect, the trap offers considerable advantages over its 60-year-old predecessor: it uses lighter-weight batteries, has a new bait system for luring in mosquitoes, it can automatically sort out the insects it captures, and uses chemicals that can preserve them for laboratory study.

To top it all off, it’s cheaper and lighter than existing traps. “Any one of them would be a huge advantage to people who work in the field. It’s like a Holy Grail. It would be awesome,” says Norris.

The drones themselves do not require direction from the ground to deliver and collect their precious cargo, and Microsoft is currently working with Federal Aviation Administration officials to ensure the autonomy can meet requirements.

Once caught, the mosquitoes are analysed and tested for diseases. In the long-run, the hope is that this kind of technology could help prevent outbreaks of dengue fever or avian flu. Previously, researchers would painstakingly search for a single known disease, malaria for example – useful, but with obvious limitations. “Even five years ago, the cost of a system such as this would have been too high,” says Microsoft researcher Ethan Jackson.

It’s all hugely ambitious, and although the company completed a feasibility study in Grenada back in March, results won’t be immediate. “This is at least a five-year vision,” explains Jackson. “But along the way, the advances we make in each of these areas will have a lot of value in their own right.”

Which is bad news for mosquitoes, but good news for humans. And we know which side we’re rooting for.

Lead image: John Tann, used under Creative Commons

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