KEY WEST – In an effort to efficiently combat the black salt marsh mosquito, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is pursing a modern approach to subduing the swarms of mosquitoes in South Florida.
“It would be impossible to live on these islands without good mosquito control,” said Michael Doyle, director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District.
Mosquito controllers are testing a flying drone to see if it can map pools of water where mosquito larvae are likely to be found.
“We want to be able to map these areas so they can be treated by helicopter,” Doyle said.
Heavy rain or high tide cause shallow bodies of water to spread and shift throughout the natural marshlands of the Keys. These bodies of water are hard to track and can rapidly become mosquito nurseries, Doyle said.
“Within hours you’ve got billions of mosquito larvae swimming in them,” he said.
Doyle is hoping the drone will be able to accurately detect small pools where mosquitoes lay their eggs. It is important to identify breeding grounds quickly because larvae grow into flying mosquitos in about three days.
The current system for battling the mosquito population requires mosquito controllers, on foot or by boat, to search for larvae before they can hatch.
“These are very short time frames for a large area,” Doyle said.
The mosquito controllers use a bacteria that is dispersed into the water supply and consumed by the larvae, killing them before they mature into flying mosquitos.
If the mosquito controllers fail to add the bacteria before the mosquitoes mature, the only other option for eliminating them is to spray general insecticide by truck or plane.
Doyle said insecticide is an unpopular option because of the variety of wildlife and endangered species located in the Florida Keys.
“It’s really not toxic to mammals and birds and humans, but it’s an insecticide and it could have a negative effect on butterflies,” he said.
In its quest for greater efficiency and reduced environmental impact, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, started running tests with an unmanned aerial vehicle, made by the Gainesville-based company Prioria Robotics.
Prioria was founded in 2003 by University of Florida graduates Bryan da Frota and Jason Grzywna.
“We specialize in the design and developments of smart unmanned aircraft,” da Frota said.
He said Prioria had primarily been marketing to the military but is now seeing an expansion of commercial applications such as agriculture, public safety and emergency responders.
The drone that Doyle is looking to employ is known simply as Maveric.
“Maveric is kind of our flagship product,” da Frota said.
Maveric is 6 feet long with a 26-inch wingspan and is powered by a lithium polymer battery. It can fly for about 6.2 miles at 30 mph with a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet and is capable of dashing up to 63 mph.
“It’s like a little carbon fiber bird,” explained da Frota.
The drone’s bendable wings allow the fully assembled airplane to fit in a 6-inch diameter tube.
The design for Maveric’s folding wings is based on two patents that have been licensed to Prioria by Dr. Peter Ifju, a UF professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
“For every unit they sell or every airplane they sell, they owe the University of Florida such and such money and then me, the inventors, myself and the teams who were involved get a small fraction of that,” Ifju said.
According to da Frota, Maveric’s auto pilot function controls the direction, bearing, where it goes and how it flies. All of these directions come from the drone’s programmed flight plan.
“It says, ‘the users uploaded a map and I’m gonna go from GPS point to GPS point until I’m told to do something else,’” da Frota said.
This would allow Maveric to cruise the skies searching for shallow bodies of water, saving mosquito control workers time and effort.
To use Maveric as a reconnaissance tool, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District would have to obtain a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. This certificate lays out guidelines for the use of the drone, such as dictating the cruising elevation of the craft.
“If this tool will allow us to do that and save some money at the same time, then we’re all for it,” Doyle said.