By Evan Ackerman
Welcome to the future, where your fly swatters and insect repellent have been replaced by auto-targeting laser systems. The “Photonic Fence,” designed by Intellectual Ventures Lab, is capable of detecting, tracking, and destroying mosquitoes in flight using basic components harvested from laser printers, Blu-ray disc writers, camcorders, and video game consoles. From the website:
The system would create a virtual fence made out of light— we call it a “Photonic Fence.” Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps on each fence post would beam infrared light at adjacent fence posts up to 100 feet (30 meters) away; the light would then hit strips of retroreflective material (similar to that used on highway signs) and bounce straight back toward the illuminator. A camera on each fence post monitors the reflected light for shadows cast by a hapless insect flying through the vertical plane of light.
When an invading insect is detected, our software identifies it by training a nonlethal laser beam on the bug and using that illumination to estimate the insect’s size and also to measure how fast its wings are beating. Using this method, the system can not only distinguish among mosquitoes, butterflies, and bumblebees, but it can even determine whether a mosquito is male or female! (Females are significantly larger than males and have slower wingbeats.) This is useful because only female mosquitoes bite humans.
Our software is able to track a mosquito in flight once it establishes that it is a valid target. After running safety checks to ensure no unintended object is in view, the system activates a second, more powerful laser that zaps the mosquito, causing death either by damage to its DNA (an unconfirmed hypothesis) or by overheating.
So why lasers and not something more conventional like mosquito netting? Well, people in developing countries often end up using the netting to fish with, and anyway, a mosquito net doesn’t solve the problem, it just makes the problem go look for someone else to munch on. Pesticides can be damaging to local ecosystems and can harm humans as well. The absolute ideal way of controlling the spread of malaria is to target the mosquitoes and only the mosquitoes, and the Photonic Fence does a brilliant job of that.
By now, you’re probably spotted a few major hurdles… At this point, anti-mosquito laser cannons are a.) complicated, b.) expensive, and c.) in need of electricity. So obviously it’s not going to be a stand-alone solution, and it’s going to require some clever engineering to get it ready for field deployment. It required some pretty damn clever engineering to get this far, though, so I for one am optimistic. And I want one.