Macaque monkeys spread a type of malaria parasite.
In a remote area of Southeast Asia, drones are fighting a battle - not against terrorists or insurgents, but against infectious disease.
Researchers on the island of Borneo are using flying robots to map out areas affected by a type of malaria parasite (Plasmodium knowlesi
), which most commonly infects macaque monkeys. In recent years, public health officials in the Malaysian state of Sabah have seen a rise in the number of cases of humans infected with this deadly parasite which is spread, via mosquitos, from macaques to people.
By mapping the communities where these cases occur, researchers hope to figure out why the parasite is spreading from monkeys to people with greater frequency,
said Chris Drakeley, a professor of infection and immunity at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom, and one of the researchers involved in the project.
Unmanned aerial vehicles can collect detailed information in real time at relatively low cost for ecological research.
Drakeley and his colleagues used a small, camera-carrying drone called a senseFly eBee
to create maps and digital surface models of the land and vegetation surrounding communities where P. knowlesi
has turned up in humans. The drone can fly for up to 50 minutes and carries a 16-megapixel digital camera.
"What we're doing is creating a detailed map, which we can then superimpose or overlay with the human and the macaque movement,"
Drakeley told Live Science. The movement patterns of both monkeys and humans were derived from GPS data. Locals were asked to carry around GPS tracking devices, while certain macaques were fitted with GPS collars.
The hope is that this GPS data will help the researchers pinpoint where humans and macaques are most likely to interact, and the drones will show the researchers what these areas look like and help them figure out why both species might be drawn to those areas.