Drones Against Tsetse wants to bring down the wrath of a weaponized drone on the scourge that is the tsetse fly. To do this, a Spanish team will drop chilled, sterile male tsetse files over Ethiopia using a drone. The hope is that these sterile flies will mate with female flies, reducing population numbers in the next generation.
The fight is against African trypanosomiasis in Ethiopia, or sleeping sickness, which causes around 9,000 deaths globally per year (2010 figures). Untreated people almost always die, but the disease can lie undetected in the body for years, after an unpleasant first stage. The second stage, which can come at any time after, affects the neurological system and the nervous system and disrupts the sleep cycles. The disease also affect livestock, wasting muscles, and causing paralysis and death.
The Drones Against Tsetse is being carried out by Spanish drone maker Embention, working with the Ethiopian government, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The fixed-wing drone carries boxes of tsetse flies, chilled to reduce their activity so they don’t damage themselves. The boxes are biodegradable, and these boxes are in turn kept inside pods that can be released during the flight. The drone flies at an altitude of 1,000 feet, and in each flight it can cover an area of around 40 square miles with 5,000 flies.
To be effective, says Embention, around 100 flies need to be released per 250 acres (one square kilometer) every week. Known infestations will be targeted, with the goal of reducing the risk to livestock, which are essential to Ethiopian farming—cattle are used to pull ploughs, for example.
“Some 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) of lower-lying, fertile and well rain-fed land remains under used because of tsetse infestation,” Embention’s Rafael Argiles-Herrero told Motherboard. The drones will take the place of manned planes. Thanks to the autonomous nature of the drones (they fly pre-programmed routes), the program can more easily be expanded to other areas.
Despite the parallels of this project with military missions, we can see that autonomous flying vehicles aren’t inherently bad. In fact, anywhere that nature needs to be corralled with dull, repetitive tasks might be done cheaper, quicker, and safer with drones, instead of forcing the job onto humans.