American technology companies are bringing automation and robotics to the age-old task of battling mosquitoes in a bid to halt the read of Zika and other mosquito-borne maladies worldwide.
Firms including Microsoft Corp and California life sciences company Verily are forming partnerships with public health officials in several U.S.
While it may take years for these advances to become widely available, public health experts say new players
"It's exciting when technology companies come on board," said Anandasankar Ray, an associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside. "Their approach to a biological challenge is to engineer a solution."
While cases there have slowed markedly, mosquitoes capable of carrying the virus - Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus - are spreading in the Americas, including large swaths of the southern United States.
The vast majority of the 5,365 Zika cases reported in the United States
In Texas, 10 mosquito traps made by Microsoft are operating in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston.
Roughly the size of large birdhouses, the devices use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning and cloud com
Pregnant women are at high risk because they can pass the virus to their fetuses, resulting in a variety of birth defects. Those include
Most conventional mosquito traps capture all comers - moths, flies, other mosquito varieties - leaving a pile of specimens for entomologists to sort through. The Microsoft machines differentiate insects by measuring a feature unique to each species: the shadows cast by their beating wings.
The Houston tests, begun last summer, showed the traps could detect Aedes
The machines also record shadows made by other insects as well as environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. The data can be used to build models to predict where and when mosquitoes are active.
Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County's mosquito and vector control division, said the traps save time and give researchers more insight into mosquito
The traps are prototypes now. But Microsoft's Jackson said the company eventually hopes to sell them for a few hundred dollars each, roughly the price of conventional traps. The goal is to spur
"What we hope is (the traps) will allow us to bring more precision to public health," Jackson said. SORTING MOSQUITOES WITH ROBOTS Other companies, meanwhile, are developing technology to shrink mosquito populations by rendering male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sterile. When these sterile males mate with females in the wild, their eggs don't hatch.
The strategy offers an alternative to chemical pesticides. But it requires the release of millions of laboratory-bred mosquitoes into the outdoors. Males don't bite, which has made this an easier sell to places now hosting tests.
At MosquitoMate's labs in Lexington, immature mosquitoes
"That's basically done using eyeballs," said Stephen Dobson, MosquitoMate's chief executive.
Enter Verily. The company is automating mosquito sorting with robots to make it faster and more affordable. Company officials declined to be interviewed. But on its website, Verily says it's combining sensors, algorithms and "novel engineering" to speed the process.
Officials worry that residents who contract Zika elsewhere could spread it in Fresno if they're bitten by local mosquitoes that could pass the virus to others.
"That is very much of a concern because it is the primary vector for diseases such as dengue,
The study, which still needs state and federal approval, is slated for later this summer.