Since the turn of the century, malaria prevention globally has reflected in the dwindling of the number of people infected with the disease. Efforts to curb the spread of the disease have been largely successful, with the number of deaths due to malaria dropping 48 percent in the years between 2000 and 2015, according to a World Health Organization report. In Zanzibar, however, 79 percent of the population was at risk of infection with malaria in 2014, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Malaria Report 2015. In an effort to combat malaria, drones are taking to the skies of Zanzibar’s capital of Stonetown to monitor water bodies to keep mosquitoes from spreading the disease.
Alongside a small team in the Zanzibarian capital, Andy Hardy, lecturer in Remote Sensing and GIS at Aberystwyth University, launched a commercial Phantom 3 drone over Stonetown last July. The usage of drones is part of a project that is being done in collaboration with the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme that hopes to create accurate maps of mosquitoes’ potential habitats across Zanzibar through drone footage. Hardy says he thinks that it is easier to prevent mosquitoes from breeding the disease than it is to prevent people from infection.
The government, in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals, has successfully managed to prevent infection by distributing mosquito nets and insecticide spray. These efforts have proven to be successful, decreasing the number of people infected with malaria by up to 40% in some areas. However, unlike the usage of DDT insecticides in households, spraying DDT in or near bodies of water threatens ecosystems and water toxicity. The alternative is scouting for bodies of water that host the larvae on foot, but that process is not only tedious but also costly.
Malaria is typically spread to humans through mosquitoes. The disease itself is caused by Plasmodium parasites and are known to pass onto humans through the bite of a female mosquito. Malaria spreads through the female mosquito, also known as the Anopheles mosquito, which mates with another mosquito and goes off in search of an appropriate water body to lay its eggs. Within this process, governments have found difficulty in targeting the bodies of water in which mosquitoes lay their eggs; Hardy aims to fill this gap with drones.
Deploying drones decreases the time needed to survey 30 hectares (300,000 square meters) to a mere 20 minutes, according to Hardy. The images captured by the drone can be shot, processed and analyzed before nightfall, producing accurate maps to locate water bodies that are potential breeding grounds for malaria-carrying larvae. Hardy and his team are still in the testing phase, but plan to expand their operations elsewhere in Zanzibar with the help of the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.
Hardy and the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme hope to expand the drone imagery to smartphones by developing an application to help guide teams on the ground spraying larvicide on water bodies. However, the entire project does not come without a number of shortcomings. For starters, utilizing drones in public spaces is still highly problematic for its common usage in warfare, coming in contact with other aircrafts and birds and can, potentially, be seen as an invasion of privacy.
Earlier this month, a police force in the Indian town of Karimnagar using drones to combat public defecation found that it was necessary to communicate what drones are to the community and to explain how they would be used. Similarly, the team in Zanzibar is taking into consideration the need to familiarize locals with drones and what they will be used for. The team is also working to show locals footage as it is being recorded to encourage the community’s engagement in the project.