health science technology

Mosquito lasers: the war on malaria goes high tech

What I wouldn’t have given for one of these when we lived in Madagascar – last week the audience of the annual TED conference was treated to a live demonstration of a laser that shoots down mosquitos.

Using parts ordered off ebay, a team of scientists has created a laser that can pinpoint mosquitos in flight and zap them into puffs of smoke. The device uses similar image detection technology to that used in digital cameras, combined with the highly precise laser technology used in laser printers. The result is a very fast, very accurate mini-weapon that can take out 50-100 mosquitos a second when running at full speed, from 100 feet away.

Because the software recognises the frequency of the mosquito’s wingbeats, it knows to ignore other insects, such as butterflies. In fact, it only shoots the female mosquitos – the males are smaller and don’t carry malaria.

The device is a prototype and there are no plans to develop it for commercial use at this stage, but the inventors believe the cost of each unit could be brought down as low as $50. They could then be used to create mosquito-proof ‘photonic fences‘ around hospitals or clinics, for example.

The laser weapon is one of many innovative solutions being tested in the fight against malaria, one of the world’s biggest killers. Other ideas include a microwave weapon, a mosquito-blinding flashlight, and a tailor-made bacteria that would wipe them out. One team is even attempting to bio-engineer a better mosquito that would naturally wipe out the anopheles, malaria-carrying variety.

No doubt there are some appropriate technology solutions out there too – glamorous as they may be, lasers are hardly practical for the rural African communities where most malaria deaths occur. Nevertheless, there is a concerted effort to tackle malaria at the moment, and that is very welcome. Between the high tech solutions and the simple strategies of bed nets and insecticide spraying, I’d like to hope that we’ll see the back of malaria this decade.


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