Drones to the rescue: California uses flying robots to battle mosquitoes

“It’s more of a battle. And with advancements in technology, we’re gaining ground,” said Kiet Nguyen, vector ecologist.
Amal Jos Chacko
An image of a drone used to combat mosquitoes.
An image of a drone used to combat mosquitoes.

Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District  

In a bid to tackle the surging mosquito population and prevent the spread of diseases in Southern California, the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District has unleashed an innovative weapon: drones armed with bacteria-filled spore pellets. 

These high-tech drones are revolutionizing mosquito control by targeting mosquito development in marshes, large ponds, and parks. An unprecedented increase in mosquitoes following a winter that saw exceptional levels of rainfall forced the district into drastic measures to combat this buzzing menace.

“There's quite a bit more mosquitoes due to the rain,” John Savage, who recently operated the drone at San Joaquin Marsh Reserve, told Associated Press. “You can see out here almost every single marsh pond is full of water.”

Precision and Efficiency in the Fight

Traditionally, anti-mosquito treatments involve labor-intensive methods such as backpack sprayers, trucks, airplanes, and helicopters. However, the use of drones opens up a more precise and less invasive approach. 

Kiet Nguyen, a vector ecologist for the district, claimed that the drone's ability to access hard-to-reach areas made it a game-changer. “We're always looking for advancements in technology— what can get the job (done) more efficient, more beneficial to the team and less invasive,” he explained. 

While a worker with a backpack would take over an hour to treat 0.4 hectares (1 acre) of land, the same area could be covered by a drone in under two minutes.

Mosquitoes Beware, the Sky Is Watching

These drones deploy with an added benefit: minimal disruption to the local wildlife. “We’ve done studies where we watched the birds,” Savage said. “And the birds usually come right back after the drone passes over. So if anything, it’s better for the environment.”

The treatment itself is harmless to other wildlife and targets mosquito larvae, Savage noted. “The mosquito larvae are filter feeders, so they feed on the bacteria. It enters their gut and it’s a growth regulator,” he added.

The Orange County district is gaining ground in the battle against mosquitoes by combining technological advancements and careful observation. 

But it is keen to regulate its use safely, with the district mandating drone operators to have a Federal Aviation Administration remote pilot license as well as a California Department of Pesticide Regulation unmanned aircraft vector control technician license.

These drones are not allowed to fly over residential neighborhoods. While PrecisionVision 35 drones manufactured by Leading Aerial Technologies are used to disburse treatment in granule bait or liquid larvicide form, DJI-manufactured Inspire 2 drones take up surveillance.

While mosquito-borne diseases have long posed a threat to public health, recent developments have raised concerns even further. The European Union's disease prevention authority has highlighted the increased risk of mosquito-borne viral diseases due to climate change. 

Just this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported local cases of malaria spread by mosquitoes in Florida and Texas, the first after a two-decade hiatus. 

The West Nile virus remains the most common and serious mosquito-borne disease in California and has claimed over 300 lives since 2003. 

The Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District's use of drones represents a significant leap forward in mosquito control technology with the virus not being detected this year yet.

While victory in the war against mosquitoes may be elusive, these advancements provide hope for gaining ground in safeguarding public health and curbing the mosquito menace.

This article was written and edited by a human, with the assistance of Generative AI tools. Find out more about our policy on AI-powered writing here.

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