TO TELL a dusty day from a deadly one, you might need to take to the skies.
The Coccidioides fungus lives in the desert soil of the Southwest US and Mexico, but on dry, windy days it can get kicked up into the air. Inhaling a single spore can cause pneumonia – or worse. A drone designed at the University of California, Merced, aims to be a nose in the sky, searching for the airborne fungus to warn people when levels are high.
The fungus infects an estimated 150,000 people a year, causing a flu-like condition called. If properly diagnosed, valley fever can be treated with antifungal drugs, but little is known about how the spores spread through the environment, or how to stop this happening. The goal of the Merced project is to find out. The team wants to test for spores in flight, mapping their flow and potentially warning communities to stay indoors or wear masks on the most dangerous days.
“We want to be able to answer the question of when it is uplifted into the atmosphere, by what means the fungal spores travel, and at what point they may interact with humans,” says team member.
In early March, the team flew their sampling system for the first time above pools and grasslands in a reserve on the university campus.
The current version of the drone flies up to an altitude of 80 metres, then circles a predefined coordinate at a 200-metre radius. During the flight, a pump sucks in up to 20 litres of air, trapping particles in a filter …
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