WeRobotics is a company based in Geneva and the United States, which was established to see how drones could be used for positive social impact. Community robotic labs have been set up in developing countries around the world, and with its partners, WeRobotics has mapped Nepalese rivers, provided aid to Caribbean countries following Hurricane Maria and delivered medicine in Peru.
Now WeRobotics, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development(USAID), is trying to tackle the problem of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Combatting the spread of deadly disease by mosquito bite has been an issue for non-profit organisations and government agencies for years, and one of the methods has been to use sterile males.
The male mosquitoes are bred in captivity, sterilised through radiation, and released back into the wild in such large numbers that they outcompete wild males for breeding with the females, and thus reduce the population significantly. The science behind this is sound and it can work very well, but actually spreading the sterile insects in developing countries where roads are non-existent or poorly maintained is not always easy. That’s where WeRobotics comes in.
How Will WeRobotics Deliver the Mosquitoes?
The WeRobotics drones are intended to carry the mosquitoes in containers that are attached to the flying machines. They should be able to cover a much greater area than ever before, and as many mosquitoes as possible will be packed into each drone.
After some experimentation, the chosen release method for the insects uses a rotating element. Individual mosquitoes fall through the holes in this element, spend a few seconds in another chamber to warm up and then exit the drone. The warming up is required because, as WeRobotics cofounder Adam Klaptocz explains, the mosquitoes’ temperature is lowered so that they fall asleep and can be packed and transported without causing them any damage.
Any model of drone can be used with the WeRobotics deployment system, and future projects could include males that have been genetically modified to produce sterile offspring and Wolbachia-infected females that are less likely to spread disease through their bites. The first tests are due to start in Latin America soon, with the exact date to be announced when a location has been settled on. The drones will be marked to see how successful they are in the wild and how far they travel.
Challenges to the Project
While Klaptocz says that 2 or 3 drones would be able to control the mosquito population of an entire city, there are a lot of potential pitfalls that the project could face. Health-care technology expert Robert Malkin, who is based at Duke University, says that any operations in remote areas that are lacking in infrastructure is difficult to maintain, but adds that the project could work.
In addition to technical logistics, Klaptocz notes how important it is to work and communicate with local residents from the very beginning. If people don’t know what’s going on all they’ll see is a huge swarm of mosquitoes being dumped on them from robots that are flying in the sky. Once they understand the project, they’ll be able to see that this application of technology is as incredible as the mobile technology advances that allow us to bank, track breaking news and even play online casino games on tablets and smartphones.
Fumigation, stagnant water removal and other measures will need to be put in place at the same time that the mosquitoes are released, and community cooperation is essential for this too. Like many projects, a seamless blend of sophisticated technology and basic human intelligence is required for best results.
Drones could well hold the key to eradicating viruses like Zika and greatly reducing Malaria, and if tests show positive results the world as many know it may change slightly for the better.