Microsoft researchers and academic partners across multiple disciplines are working together to develop a system using drones that would collect mosquitoes and analyse them, looking for early signs of a potentially harmful disease spreading.
Microsoft’s system is called “Project Premonition.” Its aim is to use drones to look for pathogens in animals before they have a chance to become widespread and become an outbreak, preventing a major health disaster. When the mosquitoes are brought back to the laboratory, using gene sequencing and a blood sample, researchers will be able to see if there are any known or unknown pathogens in their bodies.
“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.
Project Premonition: Seeking to prevent disease outbreaks:
Researchers believe that it may take several years to finish all of the research. “This is at least a five-year vision, no doubt about it,” said Ethan Jackson, the Microsoft lead researcher on the project. “But along the way, the advances we make in each of these areas have a lot of value in their own right.”
When completed, it could allow health officials to prevent outbreaks of diseases like dengue fever or avian flu.
“That’s a huge leap forward from the current system. Usually, health officials only find out about an outbreak once people are already getting sick. This means things like vaccines and health clinics may not be up and running for as long as a couple of months after a disease has begun spreading.”
Project Premonition: Seeking to prevent disease outbreaks (extended):
For the project to work, the Researchers are relying on drones to fly the mosquito traps into remote areas and out again in a semi-autonomous way. The researchers are making the drones more autonomous, and are working with Federal Aviation Administration officials on all the regulatory requirements.
Microsoft’s corporate vice president Jeannette Wing said: “The ability to make drones that can carefully navigate an environment on their own is key to another, broader goal of Project Premonition: Building safer cyber-physical systems.”
A cyber-physical system is any computer-based system that interacts with the real world, including everything from implanted medical devices to drones to driver-less cars. It’s much more complicated to safeguard a cyber-physical system than, say, a software program because there are other factors to think about beyond just code, like wind, temperature or pedestrians, Microsoft wrote.
“The safety of all these cyber-physical systems is paramount,” Wing said. “We need to get ahead of the game.”
This, on the surface, may seem trivial, but in reality it is a big deal. This kind of system could save millions of lives in just one year.