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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

South Florida Uses Drones to Combat Malaria in Cambodia

University of South Florida College of Public Health’s Dr. Robert Novak is aiming to reduce the transmission of malaria in Cambodia with the help of drone technology.

Dr. Novak’s Gates Foundation funded research is currently underway in Mekong River Subregio in Cambodia, an area Dr. Novak says is experiencing both antimalarial drug resistance, as well as mosquito insecticide resistance.

“It’s really a major challenge to come up with alternatives,” he said. “Our goal is to reduce transmission.”

[Photo: Dr. Novak and the field team in the Soyas village. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Novak)]

Dr. Novak, a professor of global health, and his team are using drones as part of a project to locate mosquitoes in their larval aquatic stages in areas where they are the most concentrated, immobile and accessible — an effort he’s coined the “CIA approach” to mosquito control.

“The whole philosophy to using this approach is to identify where there are pockets or habitats that are producing larvae and try to control them before they become winged mobile adults and disperse over the ecosystem,” Dr. Novak said.

[Photo: The field team preps the drone for flight. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Novak)]

The research, which begin in early 2016 is now in its second stage, with funding through 2018 and the possibility of continuous funding thereafter.

Dr. Novak said their first step is to capture unique “spectral signatures” — pictures of mosquito larvae in an aquatic environment — which are then uploaded to the drones for capturing a broader area of surveillance.

Using a handheld device called a spectrophotometer, Dr. Novak and his team capture a 30 cm square image of what a mosquito aquatic habitat looks like at ground level.

“We can get a unique signature based on the reflectance of light,” Dr. Novak said.

[Photo: An example of an Anopheles habitat and where mosquitoes reproduce. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Novak)]

This spectral signature is then uploaded to the drone which allows his team to find and identify specifically all similar aquatic habits producing mosquitoes.

“The whole thing is scale up,” Dr. Novak said. “We get a signature of where the mosquitoes are, upload that to a drone, which gives us an image of a larger area, about five to ten miles, and then for really scaling up to broader areas or even regions we utilize submeter satellite data.”

[Photo: Graphic highlighting how the drones assist in locating the mosquito aquatic habitats. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Novak)]

Ms. Silvia Alvarez, a research coordinator and COPH alumna, worked to collect data in the field this past summer.

“Being able to be part of an extraordinary team both from USF and Cambodian locals has been amazing,” Ms. Alvarez said. “Transferring the knowledge from one side to another has been gratifying. Cambodians have been very welcoming and helpful with this project.”

[Photo: Ms. Silvia Alvarez uses a spectrophotometer (blue device) to capture unique signatures the drones utilize in data collection. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Silvia Alvarez)]

[Photo: The lab Novak and his team use as a home base while working in Mekong, Cambodia. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Novak)]

“My Cambodian team are exceptionally good, they are doing all the drone and associated field work now,” he said. “We taught them to fly and they do the download, create the space and flight path of the drone; the first trip was just to train people and the Cambodians were really good. I was so happy with that.”

Dr. Novak said once the drones have identified all the potential mosquito larvae in a given area, the next phase will be to use satellites to capture an image of a larger region and then treat.

“This [research] is really very unique; it’s become important because of malarial resistance to drug treatment and insecticides,” he said. “This could be a viable addition to help reduce the risk of transmission, so we’re really excited about it.”