By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Florida Keys agency charged with keeping the island chain's mosquito swarms at bay might become the nation's first to use drones to spot remote breeding grounds as part of efforts to eradicate the insect.
"If you try to get across the small islands it's back country, it's jungle," said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, who added the drones wouldn't replace boots on the ground, but would help turn eradication efforts into "smart bombing."
On August 26 the head of North Carolina-based Condor Aerial will demonstrate the Maveric drone on a test flight for officials in hopes of selling the $65,000 aircraft to one of the Sunshine State's most popular tourist destinations.
The chain of islands begins about an hour south of Miami and stretches nearly 200 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. The southern tip of Key West is located only 90 miles from the shores of Cuba.
Condor Aerial CEO Fred Culbertson said the two-pound, two-and-a-half-foot-long drone can fly for 90 minutes at 200 feet. For mosquito control, they will be fitted with thermal cameras, which can show the pools where mosquitoes lay eggs as dark spots on the ground.
Inspectors will have to take pilot training certification courses and local officials will have to seek Federal Aviation Authority approval to fly the drones.
"They're not going to be used for surveillance," Culbertson stressed.
Condor Aerial is a division of Prioria Robotics, a north Florida-based manufacturer that in 2010 received a $2.8 million contract from Canada to supply reconnaissance drones in Afghanistan.
Mosquitoes breed in the stagnant water left after a high tide or a storm. The agency employs 40 inspectors who scour 42 islands spread across 140 square miles. After an event, inspectors have only days before eggs grow into biting, potentially disease-spreading adults.
When a drone spots a potential breeding ground an inspector would visit the site to test for eggs, before calling in one of the district's four helicopters to spray a bacteria to kill them.
"What we're looking to see is if this technology can actually see shallow water either out in the open or under mangroves," Doyle said. "And how much land can it cover quickly so the inspectors can get out that day."
Doyle said the drones could help him better monitor the Keys with less staff. "As our budget is getting smaller we're trying to find ways to cover the same area with fewer people," he said.
Keys officials regularly battle the common Salt Marsh mosquitoes that breed by the millions and can fly up to six miles. Yet their chief concern is the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue, known as breakbone fever for the intense joint pains it causes.
In 2010 the disease infected 63 people, according to a Center for Disease Control report.
Dengue mosquitoes can lay eggs in small, hidden pools that drones might not be able to spot. The only effective solution, Doyle said, is to visit sites multiple times a month, emptying any containers and spraying chemicals to kill any larvae that might grow.
"They've found them growing in a two-liter bottle cap," he added.
As well as considering drones, officials are awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval to release genetically modified, sterile males into the wild to mate with wild females that would produce no offspring. Doyle hopes the plan could collapse the mosquito population.
Still, there's no way to eradicate the insect completely. Tourists and seasonal residents are always introducing new species and diseases into the environment.
"Every time somebody brings a potted plant from Home Depot in Miami there are eggs in there," Doyle said. "The next time it rains there will be a few more mosquitoes."
(Editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay)