The fight against malaria continues to be one of the most devastating challenges, particularly in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Malaria remains a significant cause of mortality and economic burden in Africa, which bears 96% of malaria deaths worldwide and costs £12 billion per year. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why drones are an increasingly attractive option for delivering countermeasures to help prevent the disease.
Malaria spreads through the bite of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes, and they thrive in stagnant and sunlit water. Rice paddies are breeding grounds for the disease, making it difficult to control over large areas. Using helicopters to detect and spray larval habitats is too expensive and inefficient. By hand, it’s too time-consuming and exposes workers to infected mosquitoes.
Drone technology can target the root of the problem and help save lives.
Cheju Rice Irrigation Scheme
In 2019, Anti-Malaria Drones proposed an innovative idea to utilise drones in an irrigated rice agro-ecosystem in Zanzibar, Tanzania. They sprayed multiple rice paddies with an Agras MG-1S drone, modified by the DJI team, to integrate new mechanical pumps. This makes them able to spray a biodegradable agent called Aquatain, which creates a film over the surface of the water which suffocates the larvae and prevents mosquitoes from escaping. Previously used to cover drinking water basins, it is safe for humans and other organisms.
The results saw significant reductions in mosquito larvae and trapped 90% of mosquitoes for over a month. Additionally, drones are cheaper and easier to use than manned aircraft and spray areas 10 to 50 times faster than manual methods.
The Maladrone Project
Researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme have deployed drones in Malawi since 2018. The Maladrone team used aerial data and object-based categorisation to demonstrate that orthomosaics can identify mosquito larval sites.
The airborne data was compared to hand larval surveys, allowing the scientists to connect the two. Maladrone used object-based classification to categorise orthomosaic maps and identify mosquito breeding locations. The approach helped researchers determine which reservoirs had mosquito-associated aquatic vegetation to discover infested pools nearby.
Now, drones are sent out monthly to locate breeding sites. To learn more about where mosquitoes lay their eggs, the team collects data throughout the dry season, emphasising dams, reservoirs, and other similar habitats.
Environmental changes make malaria prevention difficult. Mosquito habitats change with the seasons and human activity. The volatility of the disease means that understanding and targeting transmission “hotspots” is crucial.
Dr. Stanton from the project team states that “This surveillance can be of the physical environment – as we’ve done in Maladrone – but I’ve also seen early prototypes of drones being used to capture and analyse adult mosquitoes (Microsoft’s Project Premonition) and take water samples to check for mosquito larvae. Drones could also be used to administer or deliver interventions. I think there’s lots more useful technology to come!”