Granite Geek: A Tick-Killing Robot That Can't Get To Market

May 26, 2015

Tick season is upon us. It’s time to take precautions against these little potential carriers of Lyme Disease. And while you’re tucking your pant-legs into your socks, one little robot is waiting to comb through your backyard and capture and kill these little critters. For more on this, we turn to David Brooks. He’s the author of the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and many a geeky blog-post at Granite Geek.org. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

What is this tick robot all about?

It’s called the Tick Rover and I got really excited about it, too, when I heard about it, because I’m really tired of tucking my pants into my socks when I go outside. It was developed four years ago by a scientist who got educated at MIT and is now at Virginia Military Institute. He realized you could use a method to collect ticks in your field, in your yard, that is used by researchers in the field. It’s called tick dragging. Ticks basically latch onto things as they pass by. Ticks don’t leap on you. So what you do is you drag a piece of cloth through the grass or wherever ticks are and they’ll grab onto it. So what he did, is he built a little autonomous robot, like a Roomba for outdoors, and he put a cloth on the back of it and had it drive around in a tick-infested area and it picked up a ton of ticks. It ended up killing them because he put an insecticide on the cloth, and it worked really well.

How often do you have to use it?

That’s not entirely clear. It’s a function of how quickly ticks repopulate an area. Right now the way you get ticks out of your yard is you spray an insecticide all over it, and it kills them off and keeps them from coming back for a certain amount of time because the insecticide is still there. It has drawbacks because it kills off good insects and could harm your pets. The robot doesn’t have that drawback. But it’s not clear if you send it trundling through your yard whether by the next day ticks would have returned, because they would have been carried in by mice or deer, or whether it would be okay for weeks. That’s one of the things they need to find out, which is why we don’t have it.

There’s another reason why we don’t have it, and that’s the cost.

It’s pretty standard for something like this. [James Squire, the developer of the Tick Rover] estimated it was $2,000 apiece plus scores of man-hours from himself and his grad students. It would be ridiculously expensive to try to buy one of these things. What he needs to do is he needs to do research to indicate exactly how long it lasts so that’s part of the marketing, and he can use that to get federal funding for more research, which in turn will allow him to develop a marketable product to engineer it so it can be mass-produced, which is a non-trivial thing to do, and get it ready for the market at a reasonable price.

And in this example of the Tick Rover, you see a greater trend in the scientific world and its production of commercially useful items.

The biggest thing we want from scientific research is to develop cool stuff that is useful in the world. And one of the reasons we support—we use our tax dollars—to support academic research, is in hopes that this will happen. This man, by the way, his name is James Squire—he said one of the things that has happened since the downturn, 2007-2008, the great recession and the resulting crunch in government funding, is that there’s much less money for this research in academia. In fact, when I was talking to him, he was heading to another researcher in another university, trying to piggy-back on her grant and use his machine as part of her work so he could get some data without having to get extra grants, because he couldn’t get any more grant. So this is an example of cutbacks in federal funding can come down to the real world.

So we’ll have to leave our socks tucked in, is what you’re saying?

We will have to leave our socks tucked in. Now, there’s no reason why we couldn’t—I believe iRobot is making an outdoor lawnmower. There’s no reason why you couldn’t attach a sheet to the back of it like a Superman cape and spray it with the insecticide and at least kill some ticks and have fun rubbing your hands with glee and saying, “Muah-ha-ha” as you think of them dying.