Lasers Vs Insects: Creating the Photonic Fence

Controlling disease-carrying insects is a worldwide issue for agricultural, food, and health industries. Insufficient pest control can ruin an entire season’s crops, or even help spread harmful diseases to consumers. The common method for maintaining control of food resources is through the use of pesticides. While these chemicals are mostly effective in warding off troublesome insects, some species have become resistant to certain compositions, leading to stronger pesticides. While incrementally more effective, the chemicals used to develop the stronger pesticides are not the best substances for safe human consumption.

As researchers have tried to find a new way to control potential infestations or the spread of disease, a Washington-based team may have found a novel solution to growing pest control concerns: lasers.

While the idea of shooting down pesky bugs with a laser beam may seem comical, the concept developed by Intellectual Ventures Laboratory seems like a viable solution to the inevitable question: What happens when pesticides are no longer a sufficient, or health-conscious option?

Enter the Photonic Fence: An electro-optical system that uses lasers, detectors, and data to identify, detect, and shoot down insects before they reach the protected region. While not a particularly new idea, (concepts for a “mosquito fence” have been in the works since the 1980’s) we are closer to a functional prototype than ever before.

The photonic fence determines the size, flight pattern, shape, and frequency of an insect’s wing flap to distinguish species from one another. Based on the data collected, the device is able to determine if the insect is a health threat or not, only firing on those who pose a known danger to the protected region. The photonic fence will also be able to determine if any non-threatening lifeforms are at risk of being caught in the crossfire. This distinction helps to avoid any ecological disruption outside of eliminating the hazardous threat.  If the range is obstructed by other insects or lifeforms the device will not fire. The entire process takes nearly a second to occur. While the utilized lasers are low in power, when fired at something as small as a mosquito, the tool is effective in eradicating threats, but causing little to no damage elsewhere.

The goal is to use the photonic fence to protect areas critically affected by disease spreading pests. The fence, once made available, gives a powerful, yet safe alternative to chemical pesticides. Beyond public health applications, the tool could prove to be revolutionary for organic farms and beyond.

If the developing prototypes prove functional and effective, a widespread utilization of the photonic fence will have a huge secondary benefit: data collection. By building an unprecedented database of insect data, the tracking of hazardous pests in crucial areas will be easier than ever before. It goes without saying that the intent is not to eliminate entire species of insects, but rather to curve the devastating impact lost crops and deadly diseases can have on impoverished and threatened communities. To put it simply, this is not your everyday bug swatter.

One of the most significant criticisms of the photonic fence is the lack of reliable energy in Africa, where the photonic fence is needed most. Cost is also a concern of skeptics and critics, who have followed the idea of the “mosquito fence” for decades. To combat this, Intellectual Ventures is working to develop the most affordable, energy efficient way to create and develop the photonic fence to better suit it for where the need and demand exists. The technology is not too different from the standard Blu-Ray player, which does not necessitate a large surge of energy to power up.

Bringing laser technology to the worlds of agriculture and disease prevention is an exciting development for new, exciting laser applications. Using lasers to help provide the world healthier foods, better disease control, and a previously unparalleled understanding of our ecosystems could mean big, positive changes for the world at large. At the very least, with the right operation, the photonic fence could very realistically reveal new information about the world around us, and how we can make it better.


Author’s Note: The original post contained an inaccuracy in regards to the cost of development for the photonic fence. This has since been removed. Apologies for any inconvenience or confusion this may have caused.