Effect Measure

The mosquito star wars defense system

The mosquito is the vector for diseases like malaria, yellow fever and West Nile. They are major scourges of public health, and while we have sunk a fair amount of money in drying to eradicate them, we haven’t put as much money into developing the technology for the war on mosquitoes as the war on other humans. Think of the Star Wars Initiative and the investment and difficult of zapping a single missile before it hits an population area. The technology is super expensive (and super profitable for defense contractors. And so far nobody has been able to make it work. The idea of shooting a mosquito out of the sky before it zooms in to bite you is even more outlandish and one doesn’t even want to think how impractical infeasible this is technologically, much less the cost of the equipment to do it. Talk about an expensive flyswatter.

Except that the folks at Intellectual Ventures have done made such a device with off the shelf (actually off of eBay) consumer electronics: a Blu-ray player with a blue laser and a laser printer with a fast-moving mirror. Last week inventor Nathan Myhrvold showed a video of a mosquito being blasted out of the air with this laser device (hat tip Boingboing):

This is cheap and safe enough for hospital clinics and at some point possibly for homes. It’s not the solution to the problem of mosquito-borne disease, but it’s amazing it can be done at all.

Comments

  1. #1 glock
    February 14, 2010

    “And so far nobody has been able to make it work.”

    Apparently “they” have…..
    http://www.mda.mil/news/10news0002.html

  2. #2 glock
    February 14, 2010

    I like the video. Sam Peckinpah would be proud…..

  3. #3 Alex
    February 14, 2010

    Problem is lasers tend to be very inaccurate, especially over long distances. The software would have to be first class as well. I remember Orac complaining in his post Unforgivable Medical Errors about how a device using a laser in a hospital gave a patient cancer because of it’s poorly-written software. Remember, what can fry a bug can also fry a human being.

  4. #4 revere
    February 14, 2010

    glock: Highly constrained demonstration conditions. I’m not overwhelmed. I remember when this was announced. They also can’t make regular ABM systems work reliably, much less lasers.

  5. #5 doug l
    February 14, 2010

    Dang! I was hopin’ “they” would invent minature flying seeker/hunter/killer robot-dragonflies with lasers on their frickin’ heads because that would be much cooler.

  6. #6 Felix
    February 14, 2010

    @Alex:

    I have just googled the “Unforgivable Medical Errors” and it seems to me that the device you are referring to was not a laser but a machine for giving a controlled radiation dose which gave too much (and killed the patients).

    The device in discussion here is a laser from a DVD player! Not capable of giving dangerous doses I would suggest.

    Also, since it is intended to fire subsecond bursts at infrequent intervals you could run it off solar power and rechargeable batteries which would act to limit the total amount of energy it could emit in given time period.

  7. #7 JJackson
    February 14, 2010

    How is target acquisition achieved?

  8. #8 Paula
    February 15, 2010

    Doug: Those cool little flying seeker/hunter/killer robot-dragonflies with lasers on their frickin’ heads are being worked on, albeit sans lasers, here in the Columbia R. Gorge, though not for zapping nasties like mosquitoes but for surveilling and “target acquiring” people. There’s a big conference (and, I’d guess, some c.d.) on this coming up in mid-April (15-18, I think). Just don’t object to national (or local) policy, except very, very quietly, when you’re out sharing the evening breezes with those power-bugs. Well, and with windturbine serenades or whatever.

  9. #9 M. Randolph Kruger
    February 15, 2010

    I wonder Revere if they caught him in the boost phase or not… I mean was he inbound for the target and did it MIRV before he went in….

    One can never be too careful……

    Did anyone read him his rights before they used the particle beam on him?

  10. #10 Alex
    February 15, 2010

    @Felix: Thanks for the heads up.

  11. #11 geodoc
    February 15, 2010

    Amazing video.

    Hate to be the cynic, but- how many treated bednets/window screens or even aircon units could a typical developing world hospital buy for the same price as one of these things (consumer electronics and all)?

  12. #12 silence
    February 15, 2010

    The laser from a Blu-Ray player is quite capable of causing eye damage. Think about it for a second: if you can vaporize a mosquito or burn a hole in a balloon, you can burn small holes in peoples’ retinas.

    I’m with the folks who are somewhat worried about the safety mechanisms on this kind of a device.

  13. #13 Richard Hendricks
    February 15, 2010

    JJackson,
    I think they use audible detection of the mosquito’s wing beat frequency. Every mosquito species and sex has a unique beat frequency. According to the press releases I read, the device can distinguish and target only the female mosquitoes. While it may be more practical to provide bed-nets etc in the short term, if these devices can be made to run off of solar power, you can install them over your hovel’s doorway and forget about it. Bed nets need to be replaced every few years due to tearing and the embedded insecticide wearing off.

    I think one of these devices would be 100x cooler than those stupid “bug zappers” that don’t even attract mosquitoes. Plus how cool would it be to watch this thing track and zap bugs? They should put a scoreboard on the US version, I’m sure people would love to keep count of how many they kill. :)

  14. #14 Felix
    February 15, 2010

    It looked to me in the video that the laser beam vapourised the mosquito’s wings. Think how thin they must be!

    The energy required would be orders of magnitude less than that required to vapourise an entire mosquito.

    So whilst it is likely that this would cause damage to a human eye ball, in the event of a very rare accident, I would think that that is the absolute worst-case scenario.

    Would any eye surgeons care to comment of the severity of the injury?

  15. #15 Rob
    February 15, 2010

    The only way this laser device could be cooler is if the head of the mosquito exploded. I mean, smoked off wings are great, but an exploded head? Off the scale of cool.

  16. #16 daedalus4u
    February 15, 2010

    If you make the laser wavelength short enough or long enough, the cornea stops it. If they have software that can recognize and differentiate between males and females, they could track large objects like humans too.

  17. #17 tymbuktu
    February 16, 2010

    I lived in the Caribbean for 2 years on a tiny volcanic island. Everyone and every business used cistern water. There were no ponds or lakes on the island as the substrate was too porous and the island so steep.Mosquitos were non-existent — cisterns were kept stocked with guppies. And the government and people were very educated and vigilant about not allowing any standing water. It can be done.

    Nearby St. Maarten had big mosquito problems in certain areas (most) and (not major) dengue problems.

  18. #18 The Gregarious Misanthrope
    February 18, 2010

    Revere,

    There are several systems out there designed (and proven) to shoot down missiles and other projectiles with lasers. The ABL is the first that can take down a large ballistic missile in the boost phase. The test was not nearly as constrained as you think. The missile defense system based in Alaska has a very poor track record. I don’t know if it has scored a hit on a warhead that wasn’t equipped with a beacon of some sort.

    The fact is that the ABL can take out a Scud-type missile in the boost phase from a range of 100 miles or more. It is an impressive feat. No beacon is required, the giant plume is sufficient. Plus the stresses on a boosting rocket enhance the effect of heating the side of the missile. It’s like standing on an empty soda can and then just tapping the side. More modern missiles are even easier to kill than Scuds.

    Imagine the utility of knocking down an enemy’s chemical munition-filled missile on his OWN territory. I’d say that would be a deterrent.

    @ Alex

    Lasers are actually very accurate over long distances if the beam is well collimated and you have good optics. Add adaptive optics and you can put a tight spot on an object from 100+ miles away. Good software is a plus, but you are looking at the object with the equivalent of a giant telescope. You can see if the beam is on target. Even though you’re working at the speed of light, over 100+ miles you still have to lead the target, assuming it is moving. What’s really interesting, though, is when you point the laser down…

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