Laser Mosquito Zapper?

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Hmm. I am extremely skeptical about the success of this project.  From WSJ:

A quarter-century ago, American rocket scientists proposed the “Star Wars” defense system to knock Soviet missiles from the skies with laser beams. Some of the same scientists are now aiming their lasers at another airborne threat: the mosquito.

In a lab in this Seattle suburb, researchers in long white coats recently stood watching a small glass box of bugs. Every few seconds, a contraption 100 feet away shot a beam that hit the buzzing mosquitoes, one by one, with a spot of red light.

The insects survived this particular test, which used a non-lethal laser. But if these researchers have their way, the Cold War missile-defense strategy will be reborn as a WMD: Weapon of Mosquito Destruction…….

“We like to think back then we made some contribution to the ending of the Cold War” with the Star Wars program, Dr. Kare says. “Now we’re just trying to make a dent in a war that’s actually gone on a lot longer and claimed a lot more lives.”

The scientists envision their technology might one day be used to draw a laser barrier around a house or village that could kill or blind the bugs. Or, laser-equipped drone aircraft could track bugs by radar, sweeping the sky with death-dealing photons.

This story has been picked up and run all over.  The scientists named in it do seem to be legit, and Intellectual Ventures, LLC is a real company. But…

This really seems problematic. Especially since all that was shown was a video of a mosquito bursting into flame.  Was it real? Who knows.

None of the scientists named in this story seem to be entomologists, although it does say “Dr. Wood, Dr. Kare and another Star Wars scientist teamed with an entomologist with a Ph.D in mosquito behavior and other experts.” Anyone know who that ento is?

The scientists interviewed say they plan to put lasers in villages in Africa to protect them from malarial mosquitoes. (Presumably they will also invent a sustainable power supply to run it.)  Some stories also mention hand-held personal versions.  The current (non-killing) version in the demo requires a desktop computer to run it.

Would this be completely freakin’ awesome if it’s real?
Yes.
Good luck to them, and I hope it works.

However, I think this will be about as successful as the first Star Wars system. And I think the primary purchase of this news story is to drum up capital for Intellectual Ventures.

15 thoughts on “Laser Mosquito Zapper?

  1. I actually know Jordin Kare slightly, and I expect that he mainly wants to do this because it’s cool, not necessarily because he expects that every house will have an anti-mosquito laser in the yard in the near future. He’s more of a “long view” sort of guy.

  2. I haven’t seen the video, just read this in the paper, but the idea that it could be used to control malaria is just ridiculous – if people can’t afford bednets they’ll be able to buy lasers??

  3. As far as actual mosquito control goes, I’ve had pretty good results from the “mosquito magnet” traps.

    I tend to think that a trap that mimics humans as closely as possible would be the ideal, because the whole idea of “resistance” becomes moot. Sure, the surviving mosquitos would be the ones that aren’t attracted to the trap, and so they would in a sense evolve “resistance”, but at the same time, they would *evolve to not be attracted to humans at the same time*. Ultimately, we could have millions of mosquitos in the yard, but if they aren’t attracted to us, who cares?

    Sometimes I think I should make a little screen hut, either with an electrified grid or with a little suction system, so that I can sit out in the yard and *be* the bait in my mosquito trap. Can’t get much closer of a mimic to a human than an actual human, right?

  4. Jules–Exactly. If they do get it working, presumably it would be underwritten by Gates Foundation, etc. But still….

    But it’s clearly a long way off. They don’t even have a working prototype right now.

    Tim–the Mosquito magnet does seem to work pretty well, as verified by research. You can read more about it here:
    http://membracid.wordpress.com/2008/09/09/do-those-mosquito-zappy-things-really-work/

    and
    http://membracid.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/new-mosquito-trap-research/

    You are spot on with your comments about selection.

  5. Actually, never mind the laser, if they’ve got some computer program that can reliably identify a species of insect from the shadow it casts that’d be really useful for sampling. Butyes, “if” is the operative word

  6. Pablos

    I work at the Intellectual Ventures Lab where this system is being created. Just wanted to respond to a few points in the comments:

    We do have a working prototype in the lab. That is certainly nothing like having a working product, but we’ve shown this is possible. We identify mosquitoes based on their wing beat frequency. That can be easily adapted to search for other types of flying insects. There’s a possibility that this approach might be really useful for protecting crops as well, because unlike DDT or other pesticides, we can identify and remove the pests, but leave all the cute butterflies intact.

    Thanks, I will try to respond if there are further questions here.

  7. From the news stories, it sounds like your prototype does not actually hit the mosquitoes with a destructive laser. It targets them with a beam of red light, and makes a sound: “ka pow!”.

    That is rather separate from having a full working model that acquires a target, confirms, fires, and destroys.

    Is there a prototype that can do that?

  8. Pablos

    Because we are currently working with high powered lasers, we have two separate projects at the moment for safety. One for tracking and shooting, another for pulsing a laser to kill mosquitoes. These will be integrated, but we don’t demo that yet. The core capability of killing mosquitoes at distance via optical recognition has been proven. The end product would be a low power laser. Something equivalent to what is in your DVD player will be enough. We’re not “drumming up capital,” especially with this project. Also, Dr. Barcin Acar is an entomologist on our staff who has done extensive research on mosquitoes. Thanks for posting! – Pablos.

  9. But you’re still working with the high powered lasers, now, right? Since clearly safety is a concern.

    My comments stem mainly from the fact that this seems to be a news release about a plan, not a reality.

    Not even a near reality.

    Which makes me wonder why this story got so much play–other than the obvious reason that lasers are cool :D

  10. Syndicate_51

    I think they mean as a type of government or hospitality group kind of project. Maybe a group like UNICEF or something. I’m not to familiar with the aid groups myself but that is the only institutions I see using it. Average Africans can not afford this kind of investment. Love the comment from the guy working in the lab. Take that haters!

  11. This, as they say, does not compute. The low powered lasers do not have enough power, the high powered ones are dangerous to your eyes if nothing else.

  12. Syndicate–I’m not “hating” on the company, I just want to know why a story about something that hasn’t happened yet is getting such huge press coverage.

    And, oddly enough, the company guy hasn’t answered my last question…which aligns with yours, Eli.

  13. Samuel Bennet

    If it hasn’t happened yet, then the WSJ must have those triplets from Minority Report in their basement ;)

    Seriously though, it’s just another story about a potential tech in the R&D pipeline. It seems like half of the technology news I read is in the same vein.

    It is getting huge press coverage for an all too common reason – it makes for an impressive sounding headline. Is it cool? Yes. Is it remarkable? Apparently, or we wouldn’t all be remarking so!

  14. Pablos

    Ultimately, you need to shorten the lifespan of a mosquito enough to keep it from facilitating the spread of malaria. This might mean we just need to get them with a little bit of laser energy to make them die “soon” instead of “instantly.” There’s a lot of variability there, and we don’t yet have the answers on what the minimum dosage is for this purpose. That’s what determines how “big” of a laser we need. We also get time variable for how long we spend shooting them. We can track a mosquito for a long time and cook him slowly, or blast him for 10 ms with a lot of energy. For fielding these systems, you can assume that it would be an “eyesafe” laser with relatively low power and lots of safeguards to keep the laser from firing at anything besides mosquitoes.

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