US technology companies are bringing automation and robotics to the age-old task of battling mosquitoes in a bid to halt the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne maladies worldwide.
Firms including Microsoft and California’s Verily are forming partnerships with public health officials in several US states to test new high-tech tools.
In Texas, Microsoft is testing a smart trap to isolate and capture Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known Zika carriers, for study by entomologists to give them a jump on predicting outbreaks.
Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences division based in California, is speeding the process for creating sterile male mosquitoes to mate with females in the wild, offering a form of birth control for the species. While it may take years for these advances to become widely available, public health experts say new players bring fresh thinking to vector control, which still relies heavily on traditional defences such as larvicides and insecticides.
The Zika epidemic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and left thousands of babies suffering from birth defects has added urgency to the effort. In Texas, 10 mosquito traps made by Microsoft are operating in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston. Roughly the size of large birdhouses, the devices use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to help health officials keep tabs on potential disease carriers.
Most conventional mosquito traps capture all comers — moths, flies, and other mosquito varieties —leaving a pile of specimens for entomologists to sort through. The Microsoft machines differentiate insects by measuring a feature unique to each species: The shadows cast by their beating wings. When a trap detects an Aedes aegypti in one of its 64 chambers, the door slams shut.
The machine “makes a decision about whether to trap it,” said Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft engineer who is developing the device.
The traps are prototypes now. But Microsoft’s Mr Jackson said the company eventually hopes to sell them for a few hundred dollars each, roughly the price of conventional traps.
Other companies, meanwhile, are developing technology to shrink mosquito populations by rendering male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sterile. When these sterile males mate with females in the wild, their eggs don’t hatch. Oxitec is creating male mosquitoes genetically modified to be sterile.
MosquitoMate, a startup formed at the University of Kentucky, is using a naturally occurring bacterium called Wolbachia to render male mosquitoes sterile.
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