To the casual observer, it will look like a group of grown men and women playing with model aeroplanes. But in a carefully planned mission next week, a small airshow in the Florida Keys will mark a dramatic escalation in the war on the state’s army of mosquitoes.
Officials responsible for curtailing the swamp-heavy island chain’s disease-carrying insects will deploy their first unmanned drone on a test flight. If the flight is successful, the Florida Keys Mosquito District will consider purchasing the $65,000 aircraft from Condor Aerial, a North Florida-based company that holds a contract to supply the Canadian military with drones for reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan.
The aim, according to Michael Doyle, the agency’s director, is to speed up the detection of shallow areas of water where mosquitoes lay their eggs, and thus allow a swifter spraying of larvicide.
“If we can find the water, we can kill the mosquitoes. The real challenge is finding the water quickly enough,” he told keysnet.com. “What we’re looking to see is if this technology can actually see shallow water either out in the open or under mangroves, and how much land can it cover quickly so the inspectors can get out that day.”
Doyle, however, admits the project has a secondary objective: saving money. The agency employs 40 inspectors, some of whom might be growing nervous that they are about to be replaced by a mechanical eye in the sky. “As our budget is getting smaller we’re trying to find ways to cover the same area with fewer people,” he said, although he stressed there were no plans to reduce the number of staff.
Workers from Condor Aerial will demonstrate the two-and-a-half foot Maveric drone from the agency’s offices in Marathon on 26 August. According to Condor, the Maveric can fly for 90 minutes at an altitude of 200ft, giving it the potential to significantly improve the surveillance across the 100-mile chain of islands from Key Largo to Key West. “If you try to get across the small islands it’s back-country, it’s jungle,” Doyle said.
In theory, if a drone were to spot a likely breeding site, using its shortwave infrared camera, an inspector would test the larvae, and then, if necessary, call for a bacterial spray from one of the agency’s four helicopters. The most prolific mosquito in the Keys is the Salt March variety, but a bigger danger is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can carry deadly Yellow and Dengue fevers.
Doyle added that the drone test was one of a number of initiatives with which the agency was experimenting, including the setting up of more cameras and water sensors. Officials are awaiting federal approval to send in hundreds of thousands of genetically modified male mosquitoes, which would effectively render the females sterile.
Critics say the drone project is headline grabbing but ultimately an expensive way of seeking to accomplish something that could be achieved more cheaply by conventional means.
“It makes it seem as though we’re launching an army of search-and-destroy bots with the sole purpose of annihilating the blood-suckers. I want it to be true. But it just isn’t,” said a science blogger, Jason Bittel, on slate.com. “No matter what the next round of headlines say about slaying mosquitoes by slingshot, satellite or Sharknado, there are 3.3 billion people around the world who live with the daily threat of malaria. And they don’t need drones, they need $10 of mosquito netting.”