By Geoff Giordano
Despite significant criminal penalties, laser pointer strikes on aircraft continue to endanger flight crews, passengers and other citizens. Experts spotlighted the persistent problem by sharing potential solutions at the Laser Institute of America’s International Laser Safety Conference.
With nearly 4,000 laser strikes of aircraft reported annually in the U.S. since 2011, according to the FAA the need for educating the public is clear, according to LIA Executive Director Peter Baker and Education Director Gus Anibarro. When laser beams illuminate the cockpit of an aircraft, they can distract or temporarily blind pilots.
Several experts shared growing concerns about handheld laser devices during ILSC 2015 from March 23-26 in Albuquerque, N.M. Such devices, readily available from online sellers or at tourist destinations, are often mislabeled and more powerful than indicated.
Joshua Hadler, chief laser safety officer of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, detailed NIST’s method for determining laser pointer output. Many of the handheld devices he has tested exceeded the output listed on those devices.
At present, laser pointers with output power under 5 milliwatts are legal for sale in the U.S.
Patrick Murphy, executive director of the International Laser Display Association and founder of the website LaserPointerSafety.com, suggested improved consumer labeling of handheld laser devices. Such “laser safety facts” labeling would make laser hazards more evident, similar to the way nutrition labeling informs consumers.
Current labels “were designed for experts back when lasers were expensive and bulky,” Murphy said. “What does ‘Laser (Class) 2’ mean to a consumer? There’s also no warning on any current labels against aiming at aircraft. People don’t know it’s hazardous (and) they don’t know it’s illegal.”
The labels Murphy proposes not only would more clearly state the dangers of pointing handheld laser devices; they would also facilitate convictions of offenders “if the user has been specifically warned not to aim at aircraft,” he noted.
The proposed laser safety facts labels would be intended for consumer pointers and projectors that emit visible laser beams and could include laser parameters like output power and wavelength, as well as manufacturer information and details on potential eye and skin injuries.
So prevalent is the problem — with about 11 aircraft laser strikes reported nightly in the U.S. — that Trevor Wheatley of The University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, stressed the need for a low-cost, “always-on” method for locating the origin of these laser strikes. Wheatley detailed recent research into detection technology using cameras that could be installed on approach paths to commercial or military airfields and send reports to authorities for enforcement.
“Education doesn’t seem to be working, banning doesn’t seem to be working, so we thought (in terms of) deterrence, where we increase the chances of (offenders) being caught,” Wheatley explained.
“It is our intent as laser safety professionals to provide the public with as much knowledge and as many tools as possible to raise awareness of the clear dangers handheld laser devices can pose,” Anibarro said. For information on laser pointers and potential hazards, contact the Laser Institute of America at 1-800-345-2737.