tick-fighting robot

Tick-fighting Robots Could One-Day Outsmart the Little Buggers

Read Time: 3 minutes

No one likes ticks—the little bloodsucking insects can ruin your whole afternoon, especially if they carry one of the many viruses that they can transmit.  There’s even a tick that can make you allergic to eating red meat if it bites you. Other than staying inside, wearing long pants or coating your exposed skin with harsh pesticides, there’s not a whole lot you can do to avoid these little bloodsuckers—until now. Tick-fighting robots might be the solution to our tick problem if they can learn to outsmart the bugs.

Nearly Impossible to Eradicate

Ticks have proven to be a dangerous adversary, not just because of their tendency to transmit diseases like Lyme disease.  They’re also nearly impossible to eradicate. Most tick-fighting techniques show little to no effect on this six-legged scourge, whether spraying pesticides or trying to reduce deer populations to remove a potential food source. A dip in the number of ticks in a given area is only temporary, and it doesn’t take them long to climb back up to their previous population.

Instead of attacking them head on, scientists have to be clever in finding ways to reduce the number of infectious agents the insects carry. Researchers have started trying to inoculate the tick’s food sources — mice and deer, specifically, to make them immune to the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria which causes Lyme disease. The theory is that if they can make the animals immune to the disease, they can reduce the number of infected ticks that could potentially infect a human host.

They’re also approaching this enemy from the genetic side of things — by sequencing the genome of the ticks that carry Lyme disease, scientists are attempting to eradicate the tick completely in the next 15 years. Whether or not this works depends on nature — the main argument against this sort of intervention is that the genome will adapt to these changes, making the intervention essentially useless.

The Problem of Lyme disease

The most dangerous part of any tick bite is the potential to contract Lyme disease. This disease is dangerous, especially if it goes undiagnosed.  Typically, an infected tick bite will be surrounded by a red ‘bull’s eye’ of irritated tissue that is iconic as a symptom of Lyme disease. If the bull’s eye doesn’t manifest or is in an area where you might not normally see it, such as beneath the hair on the scalp, it becomes more difficult to diagnose the disease.

Unfortunately, if this disease is not treated by a doctor, it can go into remission — literally hiding from your immune system until it manifests at a later date.  You can be symptom-free for weeks or months and then suddenly start manifesting symptoms in any part of your body. Lyme disease affects upwards of 300,000 people in the United States every year according to the CDC.

Bring Out The Robots

While it might not be the best option for untrimmed landscapes, the TickBot could be a solution for lawns, especially those enjoyed and used by children or pets.  This tick-fighting robot moves along in a pre-determined pattern towing behind it cloth strips soaked in a pesticide.  The idea here isn’t to leave the pesticide behind — that wouldn’t be safe for children playing in the yard.  Instead, it’s designed to trick the ticks into latching onto the cloth strips, delivering the pesticide and killing the ticks.

The slow movement and fabric strips help to mimic the movement of the tick’s natural prey, but the one thing that really sets it apart is the carbon dioxide that the bot emits — it mimics the breath of the warm-blooded prey that the tick prefers to feed on and makes those cloth strips much more enticing.

It’s not a perfect solution — while the TickBot did clear out the area it patrolled, the ticks moved back in from other local areas within a day. It does show that there is potential for eliminating these ticks by using robot.  You just might have to set your TickBot out every other day, kind of like the Roomba in your living room.

 

There is no perfect way to eliminate ticks — yet. A simple solution many never persist but by combining innovations like the tick robot and the gene sequencing of ticks, it may be possible to reduce their populations to the point they don’t threaten human beings with their bite in the future. The true danger of the tick bite is in the diseases these creatures can carry, but if researchers can come up with ways to reduce their populations or make them unable to carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, they can reduce the impact these creatures have on the human population.

Category: Environment

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. She encourages discussions in these fields. Megan is also a regular contributor to Datafloq, The Energy Collective, and David Renke's World of Space. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking and stargazing. Love what you're reading on Schooled By Science? Don't forget to subscribe today!