4 Nov 2017

Laser strike: controlling insects using lasers

From This Way Up, 12:15 pm on 4 November 2017

“All the technology we are using has traceability to extremely cheap mass produced parts, so it will one day be cheap enough to be able to deploy to Sub Saharan Africa and at that price level you and every one of your neighbours will have one in your backyard as well.” Arty Makagon of Intellectual Ventures


The Photonic Fence is a laser fly swat that never misses the mark.

The high-tech bug zapper uses powerful cameras to scan for pests by measuring their size, shape and wing-beat frequency, before locking in on a target and exterminating it in 25 milliseconds.

The technology has been in development for nearly a decade, and field trials run by the US Department of Agriculture are about to kick off in Florida where citrus farmers are at war with an insect invader called the Asian citrus psyllid.

Project leader Arty Makagon from Washington State-based company Intellectual Ventures says the initial idea for the technology came from a desire to decrease the spread of malaria by mosquitoes.

“We’ve thrown bed nets at it and we’ve thrown long-lasting residual indoor spraying [at it] and it’s certainly had an impact but it seems to have stalled,” he said. “We’ve used all the tools we had at our disposal, and we’ve deployed them across the malaria endemic regions, but we still have nearly half a million people dying every year and the majority of those are kids under five in Africa.”

Laser scientists at Intellectual Ventures suggested that lasers could be used to shoot mosquitoes where they live.

“That’s how the idea was born,” Mr Makagon says. “Let’s use lasers to kill mosquitoes and curb the spread of malaria the same way we would use large lasers to shoot missiles out of the sky for the Strategic Defense Initiative.”

The optic technology used by the Photonic Fence can detect a target within a 100 metre range. It measures the insect’s shape and size and once it validates it as a “bad bug” it will deploy a lethal laser with the ability to kill 20 insects per second. The fence’s target parameters can be set so that it will not shoot at “good bugs” such as bees or butterflies.

Mr Makagon says the technology may be available to every household to deal with their own flying intruders in the not-too-distant future.

“Everytime we talk to somebody and say we have technology that’s able to shoot bugs in flight... they have some favourite bug to shoot”.

With this in mind, Intellectual Ventures decided to take a two-step approach where they first roll out the technology to people who can pay for it, and then deploy it in the developing world.

“Once the system is up and running and ‘bug free’, pardon the pun, we’re able to then take that mature technology with the mature infrastructure around it to the developing world and meet our initial goals.”

The cost of the Photonic Fence is as yet undetermined as it is still in the prototype phase.

However, Mr Makagon says pricing targets are in line with the needs of the developing world, which means using cheap mass-produced parts and developing the fence to run on solar power.

“So it will one day be cheap enough to be able to deploy to Sub-Saharan Africa and at that price level you and every one of your neighbours will have one in your backyard as well.”