Dr. Ben Jacob receives $25,000 grant for research on AI technology and mosquito control

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Dr. Ben Jacob, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) research assistant professor, has received a $25,000 grant from the Joy McCann Foundation, a Tampa-based nonprofit charitable organization. The money will be used to research the use of artificial intelligence and drones in the fight against mosquito larvae in Hillsborough County. 

Jacob, an expert in spatial modeling, an analytical process that uses geographical information systems (GIS) to simulate real-world, real-time conditions, was approached by the Hillsborough County mosquito abatement team looking to identify mosquito habitats in the area’s discarded rubber tires. Mosquitoes—including those that carry the Zika and West Nile viruses and Dengue fever—lay their eggs in wastewater, the kind that tends to collect in buckets, cups, bottles, planters and tire wells.

After locating a nearby tire containing mosquito larvae, Jacob flew a drone over it, capturing its spectral signature—the reflective energy and wavelengths that radiate off the tire—on a cell phone. Using that information along with satellite data, he created a spatial map, showing where there are apt to be other mosquito eggs resting in abandoned tires.

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A drone mapping mosquito habitats. (Photo by Zachary Murray)

“We identified over 2,000 mosquito habitats in these waste tires,” said Jacob. “And I never actually left my office to find them. It was all done with automation. Can you imagine how long it would have taken to find 2,000-plus habitats with ground troops? Weeks.”

Efficiency is just one of the many benefits of using artificial intelligence to locate mosquito habitats, says Jacob, who has used similar technology to combat mosquitoes in Manatee County and disease-causing vectors in Africa. 

COPH uses drones in Manatee County to identify mosquito habitats. Video recorded pre-COVID-19

“Once we have a location that’s been predicted by this artificial intelligence, we can target insecticide right to that area,” he explained. “We can even use the drones to precisely drop the insecticide.” 

According to Jacob, this kind of drone-delivered mosquito control costs the county less money (using helicopters and pilots can cost a county millions per year) and provides more effective results. 

“We’re flying the drone about a foot over the habitat,” noted Jacob. “It’s a bulls-eye every time. And we can use less insecticide, which is better for the environment and reduces the risk of the mosquitoes building up a tolerance to it.”

Jacob is using part of the grant money to develop an app mosquito-control personnel can use to find larval habitats.

“I can synthesize all these algorithms and network systems into the app, so personnel from the abatement teams can use it, no PhD required!” he said. “This technology can help us create a real-time larval control system that can be deployed within minutes. This is so much more time and cost effective. Using technology to advance epidemiological intelligence—and public health in general—is simply a no-brainer.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health