Spanish company in drone fight against tsetse fly in Africa

Having witnessed the amazing work drones have been doing during these pandemic times, maybe this is the time to test their effectiveness in preventing disease outbreaks.

Spanish drone company Embention has embarked on an ambitious project to stop the repopulation of tsetse fly in Africa – the insects whose sting is notorious for causing trypanosomosis (or trypanosomiasis), commonly known as sleeping sickness.

Common to Sub-Saharan Africa, sleeping sickness can manifest through a red chancre sore in humans, that appears within a few weeks after a person has been bitten. Having been raised in the pastures somewhere in rural Africa and got front a row seat to cattle suddenly making an aimless dash about the pastures after a sharp tsetse sting, and making fresh air kicks at an invisible enemy, we get how it must feel.

A person can experience fever, swollen lymph glands, blood in urine, aching muscles and joints, headaches and irritability. In the first phase; which if untreated, could result neurological damage, confusion, slurred speech, seizures and difficulty in walking and talking.

The disease is also common in animals.

Preventive measures like genetic engineering (making the tsetse fly immune to the disease by altering its genome) and reducing the tsetse fly population have been tries before.

It is the second method that Embention would like to revisit, but this time using drones to perform the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), a population control method that consists on the release of sterile male insects in zones in which the tsetse fly indigenous population level must be controlled. Once freed, these sterile insects get mixed with overgrown populations and copulate with non-sterile females, providing no offspring and, consequently, reducing area population. In order to be effective, SIT requires from the liberation of 100 sterile males per square kilometre, applied weekly.

The project – called Drones Against Tsetse Project Africa – first took off ground in Uganda, with the next stopover being Ethiopia and Zimbabwe in the new year.

“Within the scope of this project, Embention has developed a fully autonomous drone system capable of applying SIT technique with tsetse flies,” the company said in a statement. “It has been achieved by using a long endurance fixed wing aircraft controlled with Veronte Autopilot.

“In order to perform the controlled insect release, pods have been installed under the wings. These pods include a freezing system so flies can be stored at controlled temperatures, reducing their activity. Insects are stored on small biodegradable boxes that are autonomously freed at desired intervals for each area. Pods install a release system, managed from a DC motor and including a laser sensor that monitors boxes release. Once box release has been detected on the laser sensor, the autopilot will stop.”

In Ethiopia, the project will be managed in collaboration between Embention, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Ethiopian Ministry of Livestock and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Embention will be in charge of the development of the drone system for fly dispersion.

Insect population reduction in Africa using drones is not unique to tsetse fly; it has already been successfully tested on malaria-spreading mosquitoes in Tanzania, where DJI drones flew small containers of sterile mosquitoes to mate with female anopheles’ mosquitoes.

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