Drones Are Tracking Malaria-Carrying Monkeys

Scientists hope to learn how disease spreads by studying the interactions of macaques and people on Borneo.

(Photo: Anup Shah/Getty Images)

Oct 22, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

On the island of Borneo, one-pound aerial drones are hard at work mapping the potential for malaria to jump from macaque monkeys to humans.

Rates of malaria carried by mosquitoes that typically bite monkeys have been rising—leading researchers to investigate why and how that is happening.

“One of the hypotheses is that it’s due to environmental change, which includes an increase in population and farming, and changes in land use, which are putting pressure on the macaque population to change their behavior,” said Chris Drakeley, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and one of the researchers involved in the drone project.

(Photo: Courtesy Trends in Parasitology)

The drones are identifying areas where land is changing fast. For instance, when fields are being burned to prepare for planting, the landscape changes vastly in just a week. Drones can gather photos faster than satellites and fly beneath cloud cover that obscures views from space.

The team is deploying a small camera-carrying drone called a senseFly eBee. Software stitches together images the drone captures to create maps and digital surface models of the land and vegetation.

The images are then overlaid with data about macaque movements from GPS collars the monkeys wear. Residents also carry GPS trackers, allowing the researchers to correlate interactions between monkeys and people as land use changes.

Thanks to the drones and GPS technology, the scientists discovered that humans and macaques cross paths in unexpected ways.

“Macaques are gregarious animals: They are very adaptable, like a rat or a pigeon,” said Drakeley. “So these interactions are not a question of the humans going into the forest, but it’s more likely that macaques go near houses and steal maize.”

The scientists published their research Wednesday in the journal Trends in Parasitology.

(Photo: Courtesy Trends in Parasitology)

Next, they hope to use infrared cameras to see how many monkeys are in a troop. When they track one monkey with a GPS collar, they assume that there are others with it. But knowing an exact number will help them understand human-animal interactions more clearly.

The researchers stress that they are only halfway through a five-year project, so they can’t yet determine how changing land use, say, from forest to agriculture, affects the transmission of malaria.

Kimberly Fornace, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and coauthor of the study, said drones can study human health in other ways.

“I think anything that’s environmental or spatial could use drones,” she said.