Drone could become mosquito weapon in Florida Keys

The drone, a powerful but controversial weapon against terrorism, is about to take on a new and seemingly inexhaustible enemy: the black salt marsh mosquito.

Seeking a high-tech edge in the daily battle to beat back the swarms, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District on Monday will begin testing a next-generation drone developed by a small Gainesville robotics company.

The drone, about half the size of the ospreys commonly seen dive-bombing mullet in the Keys, won’t be equipped to spray or blast bugs. Instead, it will be rigged with a thermal camera designed to survey difficult-to-reach mangrove jungles that are the breeding grounds for the marsh mosquito, the most prolific biter in the island chain.

If the bird-size eye in the sky can accurately detect shallow pools where mosquitoes morph from tiny larval worms to buzzing blood-suckers in just days, it could save mosquito fighters time, effort and money, said Michael Doyle, the district’s executive director.

“Our people on the ground have to walk an hour to a marsh and find out what’s there,” he said. “It’s hard to cover all those places at once. If something like this could allow them to map where the water is, we could move a lot more quickly.”

Whether or not the drone proves to be an effective mosquito-hunter, the pioneering test shows how unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are quickly evolving. Drones have revolutionized warfare and have been adopted by law enforcement, raising muddy political and privacy questions that are still being sorted out. But they also are being employed for an increasing array of commercial and research uses.

They have helped track poachers in Africa, monitor wildfires in California and capture gases spewing from a volcano in Costa Rica. In coming years, researchers at the University of Florida hope to be able to dispatch squadrons of drones no bigger than paper airplanes to gather data from hurricanes, ice shelves or other extreme locations where manned aircraft can be at risk.

“I would have laughed two years ago if you would have told me this could help with mosquito control,” said Derek Lyons, vice president of sales for Prioria Robotics, a company founded by UF engineering and business students, that builds the Maveric drone being tested in the Keys.

“You put it in people’s hands and it becomes like the iPhone,” he said. “You have no idea what the applications are going to be once you get it there.”

In the Keys, the potential application is to help the largest and most challenging mosquito-control operation in the state.

Marsh mosquitoes are not public-health threats like Aedes aegypti — a carrier of dengue fever that readily breeds in developed areas — but they are the most common annoyance, fast and furious breeders that erupt with every rainstorm or tide change that floods mangrove thickets. The key to controlling them, Doyle said, is directing the district’s helicopters to hit breeding areas with bacteria granules that kill developing larva before they take wing.

Doyle estimated the tactic eliminates about 80 percent of marsh mosquitoes. Those that escape are controlled by spraying, but with increasing restrictions to protect vanishing tropical butterflies, areas for that option are shrinking, he said.

“The noose is kind of tightening in terms of our ability to spray for adults,” he said. “We have to improve the accuracy of killing them at the larval stage.”

Doyle said the idea of trying a drone came from Patrick Kuhn, a district mechanic and remote-control plane enthusiast who had read about the increasingly smart and versatile machines.

The district contacted Condor Aerial, a North Carolina-based firm that handles commercial sales of the Maveric, a camera-carrying drone originally built for the military that Prioria says has been used by SEAL teams overseas for scouting and surveillance.

The battery-powered drone weighs 2.6 pounds and has a wingspan of just over 2 ½ feet. It can easily be launched by hand like a paper airplane or, thanks to wings made of flexible metal fabric, shot from a six-inch-diameter carrying tube. The drone can fly for as long as 70 minutes in a six-mile diameter, cruising at about 30 mph, with its rotating camera streaming live video to a laptop computer.

It looks like it would make one cool toy — but the microprocessors, guidance systems and exotic materials add up to a $65,000 price tag, roughly the same as a 2013 Porsche Cayman S.

Fred Culbertson, Condor’s chief executive officer, said a drone is a bargain compared to the cost of running and maintaining a full-size airplane, and should be well-suited to the needs of mosquito control.

“They can put it on their back, walk into the mangrove, get it into the sky, see where the water pools are and walk right to them,” said Culbertson, who will pilot test flights that start Monday at Marathon Airport. “You are talking about a lot less manpower, a lot less expense for flying and a smaller team to do the job.”

Doyle stressed that the district had not yet decided on buying a drone. He questions whether the infrared cameras, which detect temperature variations, will be able to differentiate pools only a few inches deep from surrounding soggy soils.

Culbertson acknowledged that mosquito hunting will be “a learning experience” on both sides. “But we feel that once we get down and work with them for a couple of days, we can probably tweak things to make it work.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is still developing rules for the increasing array of unmanned aircraft systems. For safety’s sake, Lyons said, drones fly below 400 feet — the same ceiling applied to hobbyists with remote-control airplanes. They also are not allowed over heavily populated areas.

Laptop pilots must undergo training and receive certification before launching drones. But the Maveric, Culbertson said, also has a sophisticated guidance system that allows it to “sense and avoid” objects and fly on its own in the event of signal loss. After 10 minutes, the “autonomous” system returns it to the place it was launched, Culbertson said. It also can be programmed with GPS coordinates to fly specific routes. And in the event of a crash, he said, it wouldn’t do much damage.

“It might put a dent a car,” he said. “It’s a mix of Kevlar and carbon fibers. It’s a pretty tough little bird.”

For Prioria and Condor, the test is an opportunity to find a potentially promising new market and improve the image of drones.

“The public has such a negative connotation toward the word,” said Culbertson. “When they hear drone, they think Afghanistan. They think high-altitude flights with weapons. That’s not what we do.”

While military and law enforcement remain the biggest buyers, the drone market is broadening. Some of it is security-related. He said he has fielded inquiries from port managers who want to look at ships before they dock, from Haiti, India and other counties about using them for border patrols, and from search-and-rescue agencies.

There also is increasing interest in “eco-drones.” A survey earlier this year by the United Nations Environment Program published in the journal Environmental Development found an expanding use of drones in science and conservation use worldwide.

Police in Brazil purchased 14 to monitor illegal logging in the shrinking Amazon jungle, along with poaching and illegal mining. The World Wildlife Fund employed drones to track poachers in Africa and Asia. They have been used to map the Indonesian rain forest and erosion along a dangerously weak bank of the Missouri River in South Dakota. Early this year, NASA flew a large drone into the sulphur plume from a Costa Rican volcano to gather data that could help develop early-warning detection systems.

During testing in the Keys on Monday, federal wildlife managers will be on hand to see whether a drone might help monitor nesting birds.

As for privacy concerns, Doyle stressed that if drones are used, they would buzz only over uninhabitable swamp areas and mangrove islands.

“To be honest, we’re so mosquito-centric we aren’t even thinking of that,” he said.