Tick biologist Holly Gaff isn't playing with a toy robot. It's a third-generation rover cadets and engineering professors at the Virginia Military Institute created to kill ticks.
"I was shocked," Gaff said after putting the rover to the test. "After the first week I had to go back to my experimental design because I found that within one hour of treatment it reduced the tick population to zero for about 18 to 24 hours."
Here's how it works: the rover moves along two tubes stretched out over a specific area representing the outline of a yard. the black one emits carbon dioxide. Once it settles, the ticks --attracted to the carbon dioxide-- come running.
Then comes the rover. Its movement continues to attract the ticks. "They're in the general area from the carbon dioxide and then when the cloth passes over them and they tend to grab onto anything that passes on top of them," Gaff said.
Within an hour, she says, the ticks die. The cloth dragging behind the rover is treated with a common insecticide. "If you just put permethrin on a drag cloth it leaves virtually no permethrin in the environment, so it's child-safe and EPA-safe," said VMI engineer James Squire, who is heading the project.
He says the rover could change the pest control industry. "Their business model is primarily to use tanks of toxic chemicals strapped to the backs of employees and spray."
Squires say tests showed, in the worst trial, a reduction in tick densities of 75-90 percent. The best completely removed the tick population, he says. Squire is working to market the technology with an entrepreneur at Wake Forest.
Right now, however, the rover is not a permanent solution. "This is a way to protect your backyard so your children can play with less encounter with ticks or if you're having a party in your backyard, kind of like mosquitoes where you can spray for an hour without having mosquitoes. It's kind of the same concept." For now, it's temporary relief until more tests are done to see how soon ticks might return.
Squire says pest control companies don't have a business model to support robotics but expects small businesses could buy and maintain them.