Step aside, Flirtey
— the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began dropping pellet-sized, peanut butter-flavored vaccine balls to prairie dogs (the unfortunate prey of black-footed ferrets) using unmanned aerial systems in August, according to an Oct. 18 news release
These balls are infused with an oral vaccine to help protect against the sylvatic plague. Both the black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs are highly susceptible to this non-native disease, which spreads quickly, eliminating populations in a short time. The sylvatic plague nearly wiped out the ferrets, which were thought to be extinct from 1979 to 1981. Thanks to initiatives like the FWS vaccine program, the black-footed friends are making a comeback.
During the August testing, researchers used an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to distribute the vaccine bait. They found that an ATV with an attached distribution unit was a great way to dispense the vaccines, but realized the vehicle still had its limitations.
“There’s a lot of places, I imagine, that are gonna be not
ATV accessible. And that’s where this [drone] is really gonna show its true worth,” says Kurt Kreiger, drone pilot from Model Avionics.
Dropping one pellet every second, the drone autonomously flies about 20 mph at an altitude of roughly 60 feet.
According to the FWS, both vehicles and the approaches tested indicated they are “practical, efficient, and affordable” ways to distribute the much-needed vaccine.