Using drone mapping to identify mosquito habitats in Manatee County (VIDEO)

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Traditional mosquito abatement programs, which generally call for the spraying of insecticides across widespread areas via helicopters, can be expensive and imprecise. Manatee County, looking for a more effective and less-costly strategy to combat flood water or “nuisance” mosquitos, turned to experts at the USF College of Public Health (COPH) who’ve researched and used drone technology in combatting malaria-carrying mosquitos in parts of Africa and Asia.

“What you can do from the ground, walking around with a GPS, a drone can do in seconds,” said Dr. Ben Jacob, a COPH research assistant professor who specializes in spatial modeling, an analytical process that uses geographical information systems (GIS) to simulate real-world, real-time conditions. “Treating nuisance mosquitos and vectors can cost counties upward of $4 million. What we’re saying is why take so much taxpayer money and put it toward expensive helicopters when you can use a drone, which can be even more effective. Helicopters are wide, but you have a narrow frame with a drone, so it’s easily maneuverable in difficult locations. A drone can go under canopy cover, for example, and we can get optimal angles just a few feet from the ground. It allows us to do precision targeting. Many of the abatement districts understand the privilege they would have using a drone. It’s cost effective—it can be as little $500.”

The COPH’s Ben Jacob, PhD, right, and Mark Latham, director of Manatee County Mosquito Control, left, discuss the use of drones in identifying mosquito habitats. (Photo by Zachary Murray)

So how does the drone know which locations to survey? The first step is to send the drone up over a known habitat, programming it to capture as much imagery as possible, including the wavelengths the area is emitting. Using that data, researchers create what’s called a “shape file” and overlay it onto a digital satellite to map out other areas similar to it. Ground troops may then go into the area to determine if, indeed, it is a mosquito habitat.   Jacob has been joined on his Manatee County mosquito-tracking mission by the COPH’s Dr. Robert Novak, a professor and vectorborne disease expert, doctoral candidate Nathanael Stanley and Sriram Chellappan, a USF associate professor of computer science and engineering.

Once habitats are detected, the use of insecticides can be directed to exactly where they’re needed. That’s important, says Jacob, as overuse of insecticides can cause resistance and application from high altitudes can be affected by wind and drift. “With a drone, we can get to within a foot of the habitat and apply insecticide exactly where the vector is,” he said. While Jacob and his colleagues are working with Manatee County mosquito-control professionals, there’s no reason why the same technology can’t be used throughout Florida, and even the world.

Drone mapping mosquito habitats over marshland in Manatee County. (Photo by Zachary Murray)

“It’s quick and accurate and it’s been a phenomenal success,” remarked Jacob. “We’ve been using it in other larval control programs for malaria and onchocerciasis [river blindness] in Rwanda and Uganda, and now Cameroon is interested in some of our work. When you add to technology, you get noticed. We’re showing them that we have another methodology more powerful and less expensive than using helicopters.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health