written by

Mikael Costa Pinto

Field in Kasungu, Malawi

Drones Identifying Malaria Mosquito Breeding Sites

Last week, Crowddroning by GLOBHE kicked off the drone part of a research project started by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The goal of the project is to identify mosquito breeding sites. By knowing where mosquitoes are laying eggs the larvae can be controlled through larviciding or modification to eventually reduce the number of adult mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite. The initial phase of the project sees drones sent out monthly in Malawi. “The drones are taking images throughout the dry season to help us understand where mosquitoes are laying their eggs. We’re focusing on areas around dams and reservoirs as we believe these provide the ideal habitat for mosquitoes and result in surrounding villages being at greater risk of malaria during drier periods,” Dr. Michelle Stanton from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine explains. These eyes in the sky can identify mosquito breeding sites at a much quicker pace than traditional ground surveying methods.

Over the years we’ve seen several attempts to curb the spread of malaria by using drones in very different ways. One of the first use cases I heard of when I just started working in the UAV field was using drones carrying canisters filled with mosquitoes and then releasing them over areas with large mosquito populations. Adding mosquitoes to even more mosquitoes sounded like a terrible idea, but these weren’t any old mosquitoes; they were bred to carry the Wolbachia bacteria which can block the transmission of diseases such as malaria, dengue, Zika, and yellow fever. So by having Wolbachia carriers infiltrate mosquito populations the bacteria would be passed along and start slowing down the spread of these particular diseases. After a minor mind explosion, I realized the drone world might be more sci-fi compatible than I had thought.

Fast forward to today and that idea doesn’t seem too futuristic anymore. Using drones for malaria research seems perfectly reasonable to me and not something of the future. Whether they’re used as air shuttles for mosquito infiltrators (mind still blown) or as aerial scouts, drones have a part to play in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases. Mind you that the drones can’t do all the work by themselves. Apart from the obvious pilots themselves, a project like this couldn’t be done without skilled researchers. However, they need help to get the quantity and quality of data, in this case aerial image data, that can further progress their research. That’s where Crowddroning’s global reach comes in. As Dr. Stanton states: “We had some issues scaling the first trial initiatives, but with the help of Crowddroning by GLOBHE we can now easily scale the data collection by outsourcing the flights to local drone pilots."

The project is still in an early phase and more drone data needs to be collected over the following months, but if successful this method can be scaled to other countries looking for control efforts against mosquito-borne diseases. This will obviously not be the one and only method for stopping the spread of malaria, but instead add to already existing prevention efforts. The more the merrier when it comes to people trying to find solutions to prevent this disease that currently puts nearly half of the world’s population at risk.

First published on 2021-05-04