The bugs are especially bad in Florida, and not just because of a surge in shaggy-haired gallinippers. Summer rains always make the Sunshine State a mosquito mecca, but this year has been even wetter than usual for much of Florida. Beyond the annoying buzz and itchy welps, mosquitoes can threaten public health with diseases like West Nile virus or dengue fever, which recently re-emerged in Key West after a 75-year hiatus.
This is creating a sense of urgency in the Florida Keys, where last month's rainfall was 120 percent above average for July — possibly previewing the kind of mosquito-friendly weather favored by climate change. Looking for an edge in this insect onslaught, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is now mulling a very 21st-century tactic to battle bloodsuckers: "unmanned autonomous vehicles," better known as UAVs or drones.
Although it would be satisfying to shoot down mosquitoes from the sky, these aren't military drones. They're unarmed spy drones designed for law enforcement, according to the Florida Keys Keynoter, which first reported the proposal this week. They would use infrared cameras to find shallow pools of water where mosquitoes reproduce, letting district officials more efficiently treat potential breeding grounds with larvicide.
It's still unclear how effectively drones can identify mosquito habitat, district director Michael Doyle tells the Keynoter, but the mosquito-plagued community is willing to give them a shot. A test flight is scheduled for Aug. 26 in Key West, with a representative from drone maker Condor Aerial Optics on hand to operate its "Maveric" UAV.
"It's very much designed for law enforcement," Doyle says, citing a promotional video from Condor, "but it has a short-wave infrared camera we may be able to use to detect shallow water. It may or may not; that's what we have to find out."
The Maveric weighs just 2.4 pounds with batteries installed, Condor CEO Fred Culbertson writes in an email to MNN, and can fly for up to 90 minutes in winds up to 40 mph. Its top altitude is 26,000 feet, he adds, but the best height for video quality is 200 to 400 feet. And while it's still unproven as a mosquito spy, Culbertson says its infrared camera is up to the task. "Since water and dry ground have such a difference in temperature," he writes, "it should be easy to locate what they are looking for with our technology."
Key West's drone plan dates back to March, when the mosquito control district held a two-day sustainability summit to brainstorm ideas for smoother operations. It's one of a half dozen projects aimed at finding stagnant water around the Keys, including water sensors and remote cameras on offshore islands. "If we can find the water, we can kill the mosquitoes," Doyle says. "The real challenge is finding the water quickly enough."
People have been battling mosquitoes for millennia, but lately the fight has become increasingly high-tech — and creative. Pesticides are now joined by nontoxic novelties like the Mosquito Genie and other insect-repelling inventions, and scientists are infiltrating mosquito society with an array of genetically engineered saboteurs, from spermless males and short-lived larvae to females that can't fly or can't smell humans.
Drones would be another intriguing tool in this tradition, and Key West's idea may only be the beginning. As IEEE Spectrum points out, the next logical step is to equip drones with mosquito-roasting lasers, as seen in this video from Intellectual Ventures Lab:
Related mosquito stories on MNN:
- 10 things you didn't know about mosquitoes
- Smelly feet drive malaria mosquitoes wild
- Why do mosquito bites itch and swell?
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