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Asian Citrus Psyllid Destroys Florida Orange Crops

March 16, 2017


A growing threat is plaguing Florida orange farmers, the invading Asian Citrus Psyllid. This insect originates in Southern Asia and India and has spread throughout the world where citrus is grown. In 1998, the species was first discovered in the United States, found in Palm Beach County, Florida. Since then it has spread exponentially and devastated Florida orange crops. Current orange production levels are less than half of what they were in 2005.

Despite pesticides, removing infected trees, and essentially every other form of insect battle you can think of, they keep spreading. “We’re starting to question if we can actually control them,” says John Barben, a farmer in Highlands County. The problem with this pest isn't as much about it eating orange blossoms but that it spreads huanglongbing disease, which prevents citrus from ripening. Farmers have had a recent glimmer of hope as Silicon Valley has stepped in with some experimental technology to help turn the tide of this losing battle.

Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold is the cofounder of Intellectual Ventures. The company has been working on a new technology, which will laser target and destroy these flying insects in the air. At a U.S. Department of Agriculture site in Florida, Intellectual Ventures will install its system later this summer. The hardware consists of cameras and lasers, which identify the psyllid and shoot them down mid-flight. The technology was originally developed to battle malaria carrying mosquitoes yet has been untested so far.

Known as the Photonic Fence, Intellectual Ventures is on its third prototype of the system. With a massive kill zone of 30 meters by 3 meters per device the team hopes it will effectively stand up to the invasive bug. Technical lead Arty Makagon says, "When you look under microscope you can't tell where it's been shot. There are no singe marks, there is no gaping wound." The kill is achieved by delivering just enough heat to kill the insect without wasting power or creating a huge mess. Once the test proves that it can identify only targeted pests and not pollinators, it should be set for a larger, real-world test.

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