SEATTLE — A new research project from Microsoft will pit drones against mosquitoes in the fight against infectious disease.
They’re calling it Project Premonition. Researchers at the famous technology company plan to monitor the spread of disease and prevent future epidemics. With innovative mosquito traps, buzzing drones and cloud computing, Microsoft believes it can pull it off.
But why bother with mosquitoes?
These ever-annoying, bloodsucking insects provide a window into the health of local wildlife. By deep-sequencing their DNA, it’s possible to see if an epidemic is on the rise among animals in the region.
Catching mosquitoes, however, isn’t always so easy. Current collection techniques are time-consuming and resource-intensive. Microsoft hopes to make the process more efficient.
In a video released by the company, professor Douglas Norris of Johns Hopkins explains the limitations of today’s methods. “Current collection technologies are very limited and present a lot of biases,” he said. “So, part of this project is presenting a new trap design, a new collection design, which is always very exciting and will hopefully catch a much broader spectrum of mosquitoes than we normally collect.”
That new trap design is impressive. The device is able to lure mosquitoes, capture them and preserve them for future use. It can even automatically sort mosquitoes from other insects that may have been captured inadvertently.
But catching mosquitoes is only the beginning — someone, or something, has to retrieve the traps themselves. The researchers at Microsoft feel an automated drone would work just fine.
A video posted by the team shows a quadcopter drone flying through the forests of Grenada, as part of a feasibility study. If the project goes according to plan, drones would be able to pick up mosquito traps and transport them for analysis. The researches are working on building drones smart enough to navigate a complex environment without much input from teams on the ground. Security is also an issue, requiring the necessary precautions to prevent hacking.
After the drones deliver enough mosquitoes, scientists can analyze their DNA to learn more about infectious diseases in the area. Such analysis used to be painstaking, but recent developments in genetic sequencing and molecular biology have made things easier.
Once the analysis is completed, scientists can compare the results to databases stored in the cloud, which would allow them to predict whether or not a sample demonstrates a future risk to humans or livestock.
It’s an ambitious project and one that Microsoft believes will take another five years to develop further.
– Kevin McLaughlin