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Robots and drones could battle disease-spreading bugs

Robotics may soon be a critical ally in the fight against disease-spreading bugs, a United Nations agency said Thursday after a successful test releasing sterile mosquitos from aerial drones as part of efforts to suppress the insect that spreads Zika and other diseases. 

The drone-based mechanism overcomes a critical bottleneck in the application of Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) to control insect pests, said the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which developed the system in partnership with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the non-profit group WeRobotics.

FAO/IAEA medical entomologist Jeremy Bouyer says, “The use of drones is a breakthrough, and paves the way for large-scale and cost-efficient releases, also over densely populated areas.”

SIT, a form of insect birth control, uses radiation to sterilise male mosquitos, which are then released to mate with wild females. 

As these do not produce any offspring, the insect population declines over time.

However, to be effective, the technique requires the uniform release of large numbers of insects in good condition over a given area.

For instance, Aedes mosquitos, responsible for the spread of diseases like dengue or yellow fever, do not disperse for more than 100 meters in their lifetime. 

They are also fragile, and high-altitude releases by aeroplanes, often used in the application of SIT for other insects, can damage their wings and legs.

The drone-based system overcomes this problem.

The breakthrough technology is also cost-effective, almost half as cheap.

Until now, sterile mosquitos have been released using time-consuming and labour-intensive ground methods.

Bouyer continues, “With the drone, we can treat 20 hectares in five minutes.”

Weighing less than 10 kilograms, the drone can carry 50,000 sterile mosquitos per flight, its use also reduces the cost of releasing mosquitos by half.

The IAEA and its partners are now working to reduce the drone’s weight and to increase its capacity to carry up to 150,000 mosquitos per flight.

The testing of the system was carried out last month in Brazil, a country hit hard by the 2015-16 Zika epidemic, which also spread to other parts of South and North America and affected several islands in the Pacific, and South-east Asia.

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