The Photonic Fence, also known as Mosquito Laser, is an ingenious invention devised by Intellectual Ventures in an effort to eradicate malaria, one of the world’s deadliest diseases. The device was built to detect mosquitoes, carriers of malaria, and eliminate them using a concentrated beam of laser.
While this might seem like a cool straight out of ‘Star Wars’ solution against a pest problem, it’s been four years since the device was introduced by back in 2010. Yet, we haven’t heard much of it since then.
Did the ‘Stormtroopers’ confiscate the weapon upon a request from mosquitoes? Unlikely. The most plausible explanation of why the mosquito laser hasn’t gained enough popularity is due to technical issues that questioned its feasibility.
How does the mosquito laser work?
The device performs three basic functions: detecting, identifying and eliminating of mosquitoes. For the detection part, it uses two or more set-ups, each consisting of a camera accompanied by an infra-red lamp and retro-reflective material (similar to the ones used on road signs). The device utilizes the set-ups to create virtual fences or ‘fields of vision’ in which each post directs a beam of light towards the other posts. The light is reflected back to its source where it’s received by a camera. Any insect that crosses the virtual fence can be easily detected and identified with a high precision.
The mosquito laser, nevertheless, isn’t designed to kill any insect. So how can it recognize mosquitoes out of millions of other insect species? Well, this is where the ‘intelligent’ part of the devices takes control. The light captured by the camera is further processed by a software that reads the data to analyze the characteristics of the insect. That includes its size, speed and wing beat frequency (mosquitoes flap their wings around 600 times per second). Using the information, the software can easily distinguish mosquitoes from other insects. It can even tell if the mosquito is a male or female. This is important as only female mosquitoes bite people. Once a female mosquito is identified, the interesting part begins, killing it!
For the killing phase, the device deploys a laser similar to the one found in blue-ray players. The lethal laser is fired on the mosquito, burning its wings and eventually killing it (Just like in the video shown). Several lasers are used for this phase, enabling the device to eliminate a large number of mosquitoes at once.
Why did it fail as a potential mosquito control?
According to Intellectual Ventures, the Photonic Fence was intended to be set along the perimeter of villages or buildings in countries where malaria is prevalent. A prototype of the device that was developed and tested in a lab has proven effective in controlling mosquito populations. Nevertheless, the concept has a number of serious technical issues that are likely to surface when the device is deployed outdoor:
The prototype of the Photonic Fence developed by Intellectual Ventures has shown a considerable accuracy in killing mosquitoes (just like in the video). However, whether such accuracy will remain constant when the device is used outdoor is highly in doubt. Instantly identifying of an insect sized in millimeters from meters away is quite challenging, even with the most sophisticated of the existing technologies. Obstacles such as dirt, camera noises or tiny insects can be mistaken for mosquitoes, even to a human eye. This issue can be overcome by improving both, detection and identification, algorithms in the software used by the device.
Let’s assume a mosquito has been identified by the Photonic Fence, pinpointing the exact position of the insect and delivering the lethal laser accurately is yet another issue. There is likely a latency between the three phases; detection, identification, and elimination. Such latency means that when the laser is fired; the mosquito might not be at the same spot of when it has been identified, perhaps milliseconds ago. Hence, in order to successfully hit the target, the laser gun must be moved to point at the mosquito’s new position.
Virtual fence coverage
The Photonic Fence creates a virtual fence that surrounds houses or buildings, protecting them mosquitoes. This kind of protection is similar to a fortress that prevents enemy troops from marching into a city. However, traditional fortress has one major drawback, they don’t protect from airborne attacks that can be carried out using catapults or arrows. Same logic applies to the photonic fence. In Singapore, mosquitoes have been found in apartments 21 stories above ground. It’s impractical to create a virtual fence that can cover that extreme height. This issue, nonetheless, can be solved by adding an additional fence (a virtual roof) that can detect and eliminate mosquitoes coming from above.
In order to power its components and keep it functioning, the Photonic Fence requires a constant 24/7 electrical supply. While this isn’t a big issue in countries such as Malaysia, electricity, nevertheless is considered a luxury in third-world countries where millions of people are crippled by poverty. Unfortunately, malaria thrives in these regions, claiming the lives of more than 800,000 people every year.
Can the mosquito laser regain momentum?
Many of the existing mosquito control methods, such as fogging and netting, are either temporarily effective or considerably harmful to the environment. The mosquito laser, on the other hand, is a silent, safe and effective solution against our ordeal with mosquitoes. It’s also cheap to make as most of its parts incorporate low-cost consumer technologies. This leaves out the technical issues mentioned earlier.
In our opinion, however, issues such as accuracy or constant electrical supply might not remain an obstacle in the light of the rapid technological breakthroughs. For the electricity problem, batteries, though still inefficient, might become alternative power source for the device in the near future.
Until then, old school pest control including fogging and netting will remain our only weapons in the battle against disease-carrying mosquitoes.