Drones help scientists understand emerging zoonotic malaria

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can collect detailed information in real time at relatively low cost for ecological research, according to researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

In a new Opinion piece published in the Cell Press journal Trends in Parasitology, experts demonstrate that drones can be used to understand how environmental factors influence the spread of infectious diseases.

Lead author Kimberly Fornace, Research Fellow at the School and a member of the Monkeybar project team which is using drones to study emerging zoonotic malaria in South East Asia, said: "Drones can provide highly accurate information on changes to land, such as deforestation or changing types of agriculture. This helps to understand the impact on the movement and distribution of people, animals, and insects that carry disease."

The Monkeybar project, funded by the UK Research Council Living with Environmental Change initiative, is a large multi-disciplinary study into Plasmodium knowlesi, a malaria parasite which previously thought to only affect macaque monkeys but is being increasingly found affecting people.

The researchers are using a drone to map changes in human, mosquito and monkey habitats and correlate how those changes affect human infection.

Drone data are used alongside hospital cases, data on mosquito abundance and monkey and human movement to understand disease risks.

The investigators noted that one of the main benefits of using drones is the ability to obtain data in real time and to repeatedly map areas of interest as frequently as required.

For example, at one of their sites in Malaysia, a forest was being cleared to establish a rubber plantation, and progress of the clearing and the resulting land changes could be mapped quickly and updated routinely.

This ability to map changes as they occur is critical for understanding how land use change affects the distribution of human populations and disease-carrying organisms.

The researchers stressed that smaller drones likely to be used for research have some limitations, however, including the inability to withstand certain weather conditions and to travel over vast land areas.

As this is a relatively new technology, researchers may also face challenges related to gaining permission to carry out drone-derived mapping. Despite these limitations, drones provide a useful new source of detailed spatial information to understand the interactions between the environment and infectious diseases.

The School is pioneering the use of drones in health research. In addition to Monkeybar, Geographical Information Systems experts led by Chris Grundy are exploring opportunities to map public health emergencies and estimating population sizes in hard to reach places.

Monkeybar is funded by a £2.9m grant from four UK research councils (BBSRC, ESRC, NERC & MRC). Led by researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the work is being conducted with research partners from the University of Glasgow, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Royal Veterinary College in the UK; the University of the Philippines Los BaÑos and Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in the Philippines; the Queen Elizabeth Hospital/Ministry of Health, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, University of Malaya and the Danau Girang Field Centre/Sabah Wildlife Department in Malaysia; and the Menzies School of Health Research in Australia.

Researchers from the Monkeybar project will be discussing the research at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Annual Meeting next month.


Fornace et al, Mapping infectious disease landscapes: unmanned aerial vehicles and epidemiology, Trends in Parasitology. DOI:

Image 1: Setting up the Sensefly eBee before a flight

Image 2: Macaque movements around human Plasmodium knowlesi case household (red dots represent malaria, yellow dots represent macaque movements)

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