In the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak that killed thousands of people in West Africa, a researcher at Microsoft began to wonder how better technology could help better track and prevent the spread of disease. The virus had reemerged 2,500 miles away from the last previous outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” One of the rarest viruses on the planet suddenly jumped out in a place we didn’t expect,” says Ethan Jackson, the researcher, who now directs a program called Premonition that focuses on the problem. “It impacted the whole world in a really short amount of time. As somebody who worked in autonomous systems, I wanted to understand why we didn’t have more data about that. What would it take to get the sort of data so that we could predict events like that, and what systems would we need to build?”
Ebola likely jumped from bats to humans, just like other viruses, including the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which have increasingly been moving from wild animals to people as wilderness shrinks. As the Microsoft team thought about how to track pathogens, they realized that mosquitoes might be able to help. “They’re pretty good at sneaking in and getting a blood sample from an animal and escaping,” Jackson says. The team built a new robotic platform that can attract mosquitoes and other bugs; a small, cube-shaped device emits CO2 and light to lure insects inside, then automatically identifies species and captures selected insects so their genes can later be analyzed to find critical information about viruses and larger animals that might be infected. In a single night, one device can observe thousands of mosquitoes. A smaller number can be captured for genetic testing.
The same tool can also gather critical data about mosquitoes, which carry diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people each year. When the Zika outbreak began 2015, the team began working in Harris County, Texas, where county officials were concerned that the disease could spread. They tested early versions of the Premonition technology, which is the winner of the general excellence category in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards. The devices use sensors to monitor how mosquitoes fly, and then uses artificial intelligence to identify the species based on the wing pattern. When a species known to carry dangerous disease is present, the system can predict where the mosquitoes will be spreading the next day so that the government can spray insecticide in precisely targeted areas. After that intervention, the system can also track how much the mosquito population drops. The data can also be used to make longer-term predictions about where hot spots will emerge, so that the government can proactively treat the environment.
Now, the company wants to begin building a larger network of its sensors. They’ll focus on addressing mosquito-borne diseases—from Zika to malaria—since there’s a clear demand for tools to help better manage mosquitoes. But the system can simultaneously collect data about other pathogens that are spreading between animals, and can potentially identify issues. “What you want to see is, is this virus moving around the environment in a way that is hinting at a future problem?” Jackson says. Viruses like SARS and HIV evolved for decades before making the jump to humans. The new sensor network could help spot a problem—like COVID-19, potentially, if the technology had been in place—much earlier.