The drone, a powerful but controversial weapon against terrorism, is about to take on a new and seemingly inexhaustible enemy: the black salt marsh mosquito.
Seeking a high-tech edge in the daily battle to beat back the swarms, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District is beginning testing on a next-generation drone developed by a small Gainesville robotics company.
The drone, about half the size of the ospreys commonly seen dive-bombing mullet in the Keys, won't be equipped to spray or blast bugs. Instead, it will be rigged with a thermal camera designed to survey difficult-to-reach mangrove jungles that are the breeding grounds for the marsh mosquito, the most prolific biter in the island chain.
If the bird-size eye in the sky can accurately detect shallow pools where mosquitoes morph from tiny larval worms to buzzing blood-suckers in just days, it could save mosquito fighters time, effort and money, said Michael Doyle, the district's executive director.
"Our people on the ground have to walk an hour to a marsh and find out what's there," he said. "It's hard to cover all those places at once. If something like this could allow them to map where the water is, we could move a lot more quickly."
Whether or not the drone proves to be an effective mosquito-hunter, the pioneering test shows how unmanned aerial vehicles are quickly evolving. Drones have revolutionized warfare and have been adopted by law enforcement, raising muddy political and privacy questions that are still being sorted out. But they also are being employed for an increasing array of commercial and research uses.
They have helped track poachers in Africa, monitor wildfires in California and capture gases spewing from a volcano in Costa Rica. In coming years, researchers at the University of Florida hope to be able to dispatch squadrons of drones no bigger than paper airplanes to gather data from hurricanes, ice shelves or other extreme locations where manned aircraft can be at risk.
"I would have laughed two years ago if you would have told me this could help with mosquito control," said Derek Lyons, vice president of sales for Prioria Robotics, a company founded by UF engineering and business students, that builds the Maveric drone being tested in the Keys.
"You put it in people's hands and it becomes like the iPhone," he said. "You have no idea what the applications are going to be once you get it there."
In the Keys, the potential application is to help the largest and most challenging mosquito-control operation in the state.
Marsh mosquitoes are not public-health threats like Aedes aegypti — a carrier of dengue fever that readily breeds in developed areas — but they are the most common annoyance, fast and furious breeders that erupt with every rainstorm or tide change that floods mangrove thickets. The key to controlling them, Doyle said, is directing the district's helicopters to hit breeding areas with bacteria granules that kill developing larva before they take wing.
Doyle estimated the tactic eliminates about 80 percent of marsh mosquitoes. Those that escape are controlled by spraying, but with increasing restrictions to protect vanishing tropical butterflies, areas for that option are shrinking, he said.
"The noose is kind of tightening in terms of our ability to spray for adults," he said. "We have to improve the accuracy of killing them at the larval stage."
Doyle said the idea of trying a drone came from Patrick Kuhn, a district mechanic and remote-control plane enthusiast who had read about the increasingly smart and versatile machines.
The district contacted Condor Aerial, a North Carolina-based company that handles commercial sales of the Maveric, a camera-carrying drone originally built for the military that Prioria says has been used by Navy SEAL teams overseas for scouting and surveillance.
The battery-powered drone weighs 2.6 pounds and has a wingspan of just over 2½ feet. It can be launched by hand like a paper airplane or, thanks to wings made of flexible metal fabric, shot from a six-inch-diameter carrying tube. The drone can fly for as long as 70 minutes in a six-mile diameter, cruising at about 30 mph, with its camera streaming live video to a laptop computer.
It looks like it would make one cool toy — but the microprocessors, guidance systems and exotic materials add up to a $65,000 price tag, roughly the same as a 2013 Porsche Cayman S.