Technology giant Microsoft is working on a new project which combines autonomous drones, cloud computing and genomics in a bid to neutralize disease epidemics at the source.

The development, titled Project Premonition, aims to use drone technology to access inhospitable areas and analyse the genetic data of mosquitoes to assess the likelihood of disease outbreaks.

Researchers hope to have the project running within five years but face a number of challenges, including ensuring the drones can function autonomously and getting legal permission from aviation authorities to use them.

Right now, scientists attempt to do this by using traps hung from trees that must be collected by hand. But Microsoft’s new plan could greatly speed up this process and make it a lot cheaper, by sending out portable drones that are able to cover far more distance and come back to base with bigger samples.

If successful, the technology could provide a new means of predicting epidemics and create a cloud-based database of emerging diseases such as Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The project could also provide an avenue to track other emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), including Ebola and MERS, which are caused by previously unknown pathogens. Since many of these pathogens are resident in animals from which mosquitoes draw blood, the hope is that new EIDs can be identified and by analysing the mosquito’s genes.

The project will use new traps which can lure mosquitoes in without collecting other species of insect. Once trapped, semi-autonomous drones would be used to collect the traps and take them back to the laboratory.

What’s more, thanks to the latest advancements in molecular biology and genetic sequencing, samples can be processed faster and more cheaply than ever – they can even spot viruses that haven’t been classified yet. By developing cloud databases and algorithms to store all of this data, the researchers behind Project Premonition hope to build a robust system capable of spotting dangers to humans and wildlife alike in the future.

Credit: Science Alert, NewsWeek, Microsoft