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Smart Laser Device Tracks, Kills Mosquitoes

Mosquito photo sequence

Photo sequence showing photonic fence illuminating and killing mosquito with laser (Intellectual Ventures Laboratory)

23 May 2016. Tests with two species of insects show an electronic device called a photonic fence can identify, track, and kill harmful bugs while in flight. Results of the tests, conducted by Intellectual Ventures Laboratory in Bellevue, Washington, developer of the photonic fence, appear in this week’s issue of Optics Express, published by the Optical Society.

Photonic fence was designed to meet a need worldwide for effective solutions that control mosquitoes carrying infectious diseases, including Zika virus and malaria that pose a growing threat to both developed countries, including the U.S., and low-resource regions. In addition, citrus fruit growers in the U.S. and elsewhere face an outbreak of citrus greening, a bacterial disease also carried by a small insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, that according to USDA, destroyed more than three-quarters of citrus crops in Florida.

Control of mosquitoes or other harmful flying insects up to recently usually meant chemical pesticides, or physical barriers such as bed nets. Pesticides can be harmful to humans, particularly people with extended exposure to the chemicals. While some electronic options are available such as LIDAR, a form of radar using light adapted to hunt mosquitoes, those alternatives are expensive.

The Intellectual Ventures Lab team, led by Eric Johanson, developed photonic fence as a lower-cost, more easily deployed technology that could be adapted to controlling multiple types of harmful insects. As described in Science & Enterprise, Intellectual Ventures Lab acquires patent rights to new inventions, then arranges their licensing, financing, and development with business and not-for-profit organizations as sponsors. The sponsor in this case is Global Good Fund, backed by philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, that brings together government, business, and not-for-profit organizations to develop new technologies to improve the life of residents in the poorest regions in the world.

Photonic fence contains cameras to spot flying insects and light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to illuminate the target. Sensors measure wing speed and other unique characteristics of the female mosquito, for example, and controllers to aim an ultraviolet laser beam to hit the mosquito. On-board software distinguishes female mosquitoes that spread diseases like malaria from males, and other insect species not considered harmful, such as bees. The system then determines no bystanders are in the line of sight, and shoots a beam strong enough to kill the mosquito.

Johanson and colleagues, including researchers from U.S. Department of Agriculture, tested the photonic fence in the lab with two likely insect targets, Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes that carry malaria parasites and smaller, quicker Diaphorina citri psyllids that spread citrus greening bacteria. The results show photonic fence detects insects flying in the test space, and using measurements of wing beats, distinguishes between the two species. In addition, the wing beat measurements make it possible to tell male from female mosquitoes.

Tests of the lasers to kill the insects, conducted with psyllids, identified the lowest, yet still effective, lethal dose, an important factor where power sources may not be reliable. The entire process of detecting, tracking, and killing the target insects, says Johanson, takes about 100 milliseconds.

“Used as a virtual fence, the photonic fence can be deployed as a perimeter defense around villages, hospitals, crop fields, etc.,” notes Johanson in an Optical Society statement.  “Over time, the population of target insects inside the protected region would be decreased to the point of collapse.”

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