But in June and July, the height of the tick season, they get hungry and come out of hiding. That’s when they go to work with their impressive arsenal of biological tools. Gaff said ticks’ feet are equipped with an organ that can smell carbon dioxide from up to 65 feet away. They can also sense small variations in temperature. So if you walk near a tick, it will sense the changes in ground temperature where you step and the carbon dioxide from your breath.
“Ticks are born predators,” Squire said. “They’re really like the Predator in the movie.”
Before the robot starts its work, a tube is stretched around the areas where ticks like to congregate – usually around the edges of a yard away from thick grass. The tube releases carbon dioxide for 15 minutes, drawing all the surrounding ticks to one place.
“We’re not used to seeing ticks run because they’re being so careful about their energy budget,” Squire said.
“When you put down carbon dioxide, they race to it and they line up on it. It looks like a conga dance running right across the tube.”
Next, the robot uses sensors to self-navigate over the tube. It drags behind it a piece of denim – ticks’ favorite material, according to the VMI researchers – infused with a common insecticide.
When the fabric gets close, ticks sense its motion, heat from friction and the carbon dioxide. They think it’s an animal, latch on and are killed by the poison.
The robot won’t permanently eliminate ticks because more are constantly coming up from the ground, but Gaff said her experiments showed about 24 hours of relief.
She tested it at the Hoffler Creek Wildlife Foundation and Preserve in Portsmouth. The trails there have been plagued with one of the most severe tick infestations she has ever seen. Local schools even stopped taking field trips to the area because too many kids were coming home with the bugs.
After the robot roamed for about an hour, Gaff said, the treated area was safe for children.
Now that they see their product can work, the VMI engineers have teamed up with Elizabeth Baker, an entrepreneur who teaches at Wake Forest University, to try to commercialize the technology.
She said the next step will be to seek about $200,000 in grants to finish the design. They will then license their product to manufacturers who would create it for pest control companies such as Orkin.<< previous 1 2 3