free debate

February 16, 2010

Practical Science: Shooting Mosquitoes with Lasers

I think that there is a disconnect between science and everyday people. To try and help bridge this gap, I want to start writing more articles about how science is effecting us everyday.

Malaria killed about one million people in 2006. A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds, and more than half the world's population is at risk. Malaria is preventable and treatable with modern medicine, but with such a large problem we need to use multiple approaches to try and fight it. This is why I am such a big fan of this work by Intellectual Ventures.

Intellectual Ventures is a group that first gained my attention with their awesome quarter shrinker. This is still one of the coolest pieces of technology I have ever seen, but they didn't stop there. They have teamed up with Bill Gates to implement a new way to fight Malaria.

Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. So, one way you can prevent the spread of malaria is get rid of the mosquitoes. We are not talking about total eradication of all mosquitoes, but prevent them from getting into heavily populated areas. "How might you do this?" you might ask? With a laser, of course. The system uses a camera to identify the mosquitos, and then shoots them midair with a laser. This laser is powerful enough to kill a mosquito, but still harmless to human tissue. The identification system is one of the coolest parts of this setup.
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.
And after one unlucky bug gets identified, it gets zapped. The bottom video is by far the best, but the others are still well worth watching. This is not totally new technology (although I can't find exactly when it first came out). What Intellectual Ventures is trying to do is make it cost effective. If they succeed I could imagine a "forcefield" protecting small towns or even just clinics from malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This is a really cool invention, and is a great example of a creative solution to a huge problem.