Catching mosquitoes can be a tricky business. Microsoft researchers are employing the latest technology to capture and analyse the insects in a bid to stop the spread of infectious diseases.
Project Premonition aims to catch mosquitoes by using drones carrying specialized traps and then use cutting-edge molecular biology and cloud-based data analysis to detect infectious diseases before they become widespread.
"The ability to predict an epidemic would be huge," said Douglas Norris, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who is working on the project. "If you know they're coming, you can prepare your response ahead of time," added James Pipas, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Mosquito traps haven't advanced much since the 1950s, but Project Premonition is building new lightweight, low-power traps equipped with sensors that can sort the mosquitoes from other insects (a huge time-saver for lab workers) and chemicals that can preserve the bugs.
Microsoft's drones will fly the traps into remote areas whereas before researchers like Norris had to physcially place the traps in notoriously difficult terrain in areas in Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.
"Any one of them would be a huge advantage to people who work in the field," Norris said. "It's like a Holy Grail. It would be awesome."
Once collected, the real challenge of analyzing the insects begins. "Even five years ago, the cost of a system like this would have been too high," said Ethan Jackson, the Microsoft researcher who is spearheading the project. However, new developments in molecular biology and genetic sequencing are allowing researchers to find multiple viruses in samples, including previously undiscovered strains. This rich vein of data is then uploaded to cloud-based databases and algorithms are developed to figure out which diseases and strains could pose a threat.
That's the theory anyway, but the aptly named Project Premonition is still in its early stages and both Microsoft and the academic partners admit it will take several years to produce material results. If successful, the project could be an invaluable tool in fighting infectious diseases. Currently, aid workers only find out about outbreaks when people are already getting sick and then it can take months before vaccines and adequate health clinics are set up as we saw with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. If diseases were detected in mosquitoes before they spread to the human population, outbreaks could be minimized or prevented altogether.
Researchers will present their work today in Washington, D.C., when the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center hosts a TechFair open house.