Star Wars technology zaps mozzies in flight

Your reporter once had to explain to a toddler why it was vital that she take malaria pills on holiday. The child nodded sagely and asked whether she was supposed to throw the pills at the mosquitoes.

But it turns out that perhaps the idea wasn’t so daft after all – no less a person than Microsoft exec-turned Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold has been supporting a rather similar plan.

“Some of our inventors were involved in the Star Wars defence planning from the 1980s,” he says. “For them, the idea of using lasers to shoot mosquitos was one of those ‘it’s so crazy it just might work!’ ideas.”

The Photonic Fence proptotype was appreantly constructed almost entirely from components purchased second-hand on eBay – important for third-world countries that find missile defence systems a bit out of their budget.

LEDs beam infrared light at nearby posts, hitting strips of retroreflective material and bouncing back. A camera on each fence post monitors the reflected light for shadows cast by the mozzies.

When an invading insect is detected, 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.

The company says it’s built in safeguards to make sure the system doesn’t kill the cat. It says it can not only distinguish between mosquitoes, butterflies, and bumblebees, but can even determine whether a mosquito is male or female – no, not by looking at the dangly bits, females are bigger.

The fence can zap up to 100 mosquitoes a second, says Myhrvold, which should be plenty for the most pestilent swamp.

There’s a rather satisfying video, here.