08/17/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Drones That Combat Malaria

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Do you remember the famous anti-Vietnam War song "War" by Edwin Starr? With the lyrics "War, huh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" Well, when viewed from the perspective of malaria he was wrong. Vietnam gave us new anti-malaria drugs and potent mosquito repellents simply because research to protect U.S. troops against mosquito-borne disease intensified during the war. Later, these products entered the public health arena and today -- believe it or not -- we all reap the benefits of war.

So what about modern warfare? Can we benefit from the high-tech war industry or even the infamous U.S. Star Wars program? Intellectual Ventures' CEO and Founder Nathan Myhrvold believes we can, by shooting mosquitoes from the sky with laser beams. Has Myhrvold lost it or is he a genius?

Myhrvold's radical innovation to use laser technology against mosquitoes was fueled by funds from his former boss Bill Gates and captivated audiences around the world. It got him listed in Time magazine's Top 50 best inventions of 2010. A demonstration on stage during Myhrvold's TEDTalk in 2010 nailed it and pre-empted any form of skepticism. This was not simply an 'idea worth sharing.' This was 'an idea worth sharing because we show you here and now that it works!'

That Myhrvold and his team succeeded in shooting down mosquitoes with a laser beam cannot be refuted. Their video footage is jaw-dropping. But when it comes to putting the invention to good use in the real world, problems start. Malaria's heartland is sub-Saharan Africa, where access to electricity in rural areas is at best rudimentary. At night, Africa is really the dark continent. After seeing Myhrvold's talk online, I wrote a blog about it on MalariaWorld, the world largest scientific and social network for malaria professionals. Interestingly, all of the concerns raised there have since been addressed on Intellectual Ventures' website. The costs for installing lasers and all the subsidiary equipment to construct virtual fences around houses may not be prohibitive as claimed by Intellectual Ventures (how high they don't mention anywhere), but who will maintain it all? The smallest photonic fence around a house or clinic is a triangle, which requires three cameras, three non-lethal laser beams, three laser beams, computer-like hardware, and so on.

But in a world in which more than 650,000 children and pregnant mothers die of malaria each year, any intervention that comes along deserves to be put to the test. And this time not just on a TED stage but out there in the real world. That's precisely what I proposed in an email to Myhrvold in January 2011: That we would test his mosquito laser in large outdoor cages in East Africa in which we simulate a local village and release known numbers of mosquitoes. I even offered to sleep in the hut that would be 'protected' with the photonic fence. Myhrvold kept quiet.

Myhrvold's passion to combat some of the world's most debilitating diseases is to be commended of course. But his reputation as a great innovator could be put to better use if he would collaborate with professional mosquito biologists. -- Dr. Bart Knols

Three years have passed since Myhrvold showed the world an amazing invention. But three years have passed without any progress visible in the field. The last I heard about the magic mosquito laser was a student presentation during the annual meeting of the American Mosquito Control Association that was held in Atlantic City last February. Clearly, there were technical issues to be resolved.

Myhrvold's passion to combat some of the world's most debilitating diseases is to be commended of course. But his reputation as a great innovator could be put to better use if he would collaborate with professional mosquito biologists. They would tell him that his other great idea of luring mosquitoes to a surrogate host (a bag of blood spiked with insecticide) is not a wise idea. After all, when you attract mosquitoes to a point source there are numerous ways of trapping or killing them without the hassles of bags filled with blood. Also, Myhrvold has designed his laser gun to discriminate between male and female mosquitoes (based on their wingbeat frequencies). He is not intending to shoot down males, the harmless sex that only feeds on nectar and plant juices. Wrong thinking: No males, no offspring. The war on malaria is not about being kind to male mosquitoes. Unless it is totalitarian we won't succeed -- that's the lesson learned from the battles fought in 111 countries that so far eliminated the disease.

Thinking big is what we need when we talk malaria, and laser technology against mosquito fits this perfectly. I once more invite Myhrvold to take his technology to Tanzania where we can assist in collecting data that will be needed to convince the world that one day drones will hover over African villages at night to shoot down mosquitoes. Collateral damage of shooting down mosquitoes that bite humans but not transmit malaria, I am confident, will not be much of an issue then...

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