A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
Concerned about laser pointers? Want them used safely?
- what makes lasers hazardous to aviation
- why you should never aim laser pointers at aircraft
- basic principles of laser hazards
- a laser pointer FAQ, and fast facts for media
- a video from the FAA and Air Force
- how to report a laser incident
- laser safety glasses for pilots
- how to safely simulate a laser strike
- an online Laser Hazard Distance Calculator
- an online Beam Diameter and Irradiance Calculator
Recent laser pointer news
The news items are fully indexed so you can find stories on the topics you want. More into on how to use the category and tag indexes is here.
Below are a few of the most important recent news items. Some items include charts that will NOT appear if you are using Internet Explorer. Please view with another browser.
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- From January through July 2018, American military pilots reported more than 350 laser illuminations in the Middle East, predominantly in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an August 17 2018 article in the Wall Street Journal.
U.S. officials told the Journal these are the approximate numbers of U.S. military pilots illuminated by laser light in the Middle East: 700 in 2015, 600 in 2016, 400 in 2017, and 350 in the first seven months of 2018.
A U.S. Central Command spokesman noted that “[i]t is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint the origin of a short laser engagement.” He then claimed without further evidence that many of the illuminations “likely come from insurgents and terrorist organizations.”
However, the chart below shows that the lasing rate of aircraft in the U.S. is very roughly 10 times that of the lasing rate of U.S. military aircraft in the Middle East — and it is likely that most U.S. domestic illumination incidents do NOT come from insurgents or terrorist organizations.
Laser illumination reports: Aircraft hit in U.S. domestic airspace vs. U.S. military aircraft hit in Middle East airspaceU.S. crews had no permanent injuries although minor effects such as short-term vision impairment and headaches were reported.
The Journal article did not indicate whether the laser illuminations were being coordinated, or if the perpetrators were using lasers of a different type or power than those commonly involved in illuminations of civilian aircraft outside of conflict zones.
Details are here, including comparisons with lasing rates in other countries and areas, and commentary on the story from LaserPointerSafety.com
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- The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health on August 6 2018 proposed to prohibit the import, transit, supply and possession of laser pointers above Class 1 (0.39 milliwatt). The draft prohibition includes laser pointers of Class 1M, 2, 2M, 3R, 3B or 4.
According to FOPH, “An increasing number of laser pointers has been placed on the market that pose a danger to human health and to pilots or locomotive drivers. In order to avoid both dangerous glare and direct eye damage in the future, only class 1 lasers pointers will be allowed to be placed on the market.”
Commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com: If adopted, a Class 1 limit would be the strictest in the world. There are many countries that have a Class 2 (1 milliwatt) limit on laser pointers, and some that have a slightly higher Class 3R limit (5 milliwatts).
For red laser pointers, Class 1 would make them barely visible under normal classroom or presentation scenarios. Because green light appears brighter to the human eye, a Class 1 laser pointer may be acceptable. However, LaserPointerSafety.com has never seen a Class 1 laser pointer.
Additional information is here.
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- Canada is restricting battery-operated, handheld lasers over 1 milliwatt in public areas of greater Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as within 10 km of any Canadian airport or heliport. The ban comes in the form of an interim ministerial order announced June 28 2018 by Transport Minister Marc Garneau.
Persons are banned from possessing such lasers outside of their home, without a legitimate purpose such as work, school, education or astronomy.
Police can question anyone with a laser in one of the prohibited zones if they had a reasonable reason to search them. Examples given included if a member of the public contacted police with a specific description of a person they saw holding a laser, or if police themselves saw the person holding a laser.
Any person with a battery-operated, handheld laser in a prohibited zone 1) outside of a private dwelling and 2) without a legitimate purpose could be fined immediately and “on the spot” up to CDN $5,000. A corporation violating the law would be fined up to CDN $25,000. The fines are in addition to any criminal prosecution; intentionally aiming a laser at an aircraft could result in five years in prison, up to CDN $100,000 in fines.
Transport Canada is asking for comments via a “Let’s Talk - Lasers” webpage. The consultation closes August 27, 2018.
This map shows the banned areas in Canada. Click on the map for an online interactive version where you can zoom in to see detailed areas.
Additional information, and commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com, is here.
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- On May 10 2018, the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act gained Royal Assent. The new law makes it an an offense to shine or direct a laser beam towards a vehicle which dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract the person with control of the vehicle. The law applies to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The penalties for violations are up to five years imprisonment and an unlimited fine; these penalties take effect starting July 10 2018.
The law applies to laser beams aimed at aircraft, motor vehicles, trains, ships, hovercraft and other vehicles. A vehicle does not have to be moving at the time of offense; if the engine or motor is running then the law applies. Another provision makes it an offense to shine or direct a laser beam towards an air traffic facility, or a person providing air traffic services, under the condition where the beam dazzles or distracts, or is likely to dazzle or distract a person providing air traffic services.
The offense is a strict liability offense, meaning that prosecutors do not need to prove that the person shining the laser intended to endanger the vehicle or air traffic facility/controller. There are two defenses allowed: 1) the person had a reasonable excuse for shining the laser beam, or 2) the person did not intend to shine a laser at the vehicle/ATF/controller and exercised all due diligence to avoid doing so.
According to The Register, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) “has led the charge for stricter laws on laser abuse for many years.”
COMPARING U.S. AND U.K.
Since the U.K. peak of 2,278 incidents in 2011 (U.K. home + overseas), the number of illuminations has dropped 46% to 1,232 in 2017. It is unknown what factors may have caused the drop.
By comparison, the U.S. rate of reported illuminations rose 88% over the same period, from 3,591 incidents in 2011 to 6,753 in 2017. Again, it is unknown what caused the rise, and especially the almost-doubling from 3,894 in 2014 to 7,703 in 2015.
Laser illuminations reported to U.S. FAA and U.K. CAA, annual total
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- An aviation safety advisory committee on June 2 2018 published recommendations about how pilots can recognize and recover from laser glare incidents. The document, Aerospace Recommended Practice 6378, is entitled “Guidance on Mitigation Strategies Against Laser Illumination Effects.”
ARP6378™ has three main parts:
- A description of how lasers can interfere with pilots’ vision and operational performance, and how pilots can reduce adverse effects.
- A recommendation for pilot training, including exposure to safe, simulated laser light in a simulator or other realistic flying environment
- A description of Laser Glare Protection eyewear and windscreen film, with recommendations for whether and how to use these.
The document was developed by the SAE G10OL “Operational Laser” committee over a two-year period. It is available for purchase from SAE for $78. A three-page preview, which includes most of the Table of Contents except the appendices, is here.
For additional commentary on ARP6378’s contents see our story here.
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- The first chart below shows the total number of laser illuminations reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in the first six months of the years 2015 through 2018. The number of illuminations in 2018 has declined slightly compared to the same period last year.
For the first six months of 2018, there were 2,797 laser illumination incidents reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. This is a 5% decrease compared with the same time period in 2017, a 24% decrease compared with 2016, and a 4% increase compared with 2015.
The second chart has the same data with a different scale, to show the average number of illuminations each night.
Laser illuminations reported to U.S. FAA, Jan 1 - June 30 of each yearCharts showing U.S. laser illuminations each year since 2004, and much more information, are on the Laser/aircraft incident statistics page.Source: The U.S. Federal Aviation Association compiles pilot-reported laser incidents into Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. The information above comes from these spreadsheets.
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- A 9-year-old boy in Greece suffered serious, permanent damage to his left eye, after “repeatedly gazing” into a green beam from a laser pointer. (Note: This is not unknown. As of June 21 2018, LaserPointerSafety.com has reported on around 15 other cases of self-inflicted eye injuries.)
The most serious injury that the boy caused was a large hole in his macula, shown with the yellow arrows.
Two other areas of injury were not immediately visible in a funduscopic exam of the retina (photo A, using ordinary white light) but were clearly visible using fundus autofluorescence imaging (blue arrows in photo B, using a narrow wavelength of light). The round area to the left in both photos is the optic disc, a natural feature where the optic nerve begins — it is not laser damage.
The macula is where central vision occurs. The fact that the injury occurred in the macula indicates that the boy looked directly into the laser light with his left eye. Damage to the macula is serious as this area provides high resolution, color vision in the center of the visual field.
The injury reduced the boy’s vision to 20/100 in the injured left eye; his right eye remained at 20/20. The boy’s ophthalmologists felt the hole was too large and too much time had passed since the injury for surgery. (The doctors suspected that the boy had injured his eye at least a year earlier.) Because surgery might make things worse, causing a cataract without improving the macula, they “favored conservative management.”
There was no improvement in vision even 1 1/2 years after the injury was first presented to the ophthalmologists.
The power of the laser pointer, and other details of the incident, were not described in the one-paragraph report published June 21 2018. One of the authors told CNN the boy’s father “had bought the laser as a toy from a street merchant.”
From the New England Journal of Medicine (N Engl J Med 2018; 378:2420, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMicm1714488) Authors: Sofia Androudi, M.D., Ph.D., and Eleni Papageorgiou, M.D., Ph.D. Additional reporting by CNN. This story was picked up by many other news sites around the world.
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- On October 25 2016, the Food and Drug Administration proposed significant changes to U.S. federal laser pointer laws. Their intent is to designate all laser pointers that are not red as “defective.” This designation would prohibit U.S. sales of green, blue and other non-red pointers and would make it easier for FDA to control and seize imports of such lasers.
Laser/aircraft illumination incident statistics
Informative charts and videos
In most incidents, the beam only directly hits the aircraft windscreen a few times. That’s because it is almost impossible to hand-hold a laser onto a target hundreds or thousands of feet away. For example, these frames show 8 seconds of a laser illumination. Only in one of the frames — 1/2 second out of 8 — does a direct hit obscure the pilot’s vision. Of course, the waving beam is a distraction.
Public domain photo from the U.S. FAA, showing how a laser beam spreads over long distances and can fill the windscreen. The FAA’s highest-resolution version is here.
This diagram shows the hazard distances of a 5 mW green laser pointer. Click to enlarge.
This diagram shows various ways to help reduce laser pointer incidents. Click to enlarge.
These colorful characters depict “Dumb Ways to Blind”, a 2014 public service video that warns the Internet generation about the many ways lasers can be misused. As of August 2018, this has had over 7.3 million views on YouTube.
Learn from his mistake — don’t aim lasers at aircraft
I also want to educate anyone who owns a laser and might be inclined to use it the way I did: Learn from my mistake. I am now just getting out of prison. I have paid dearly, for I have lost my girlfriend, my dog, my home, my vehicle. Everything I owned, everything I have worked for 30 years of my life, is gone.
For shining a laser at a helicopter for three seconds, I lost my entire life. I am now 54 years old and I have no one and nothing but the clothes I was given when I was released from prison.
See how far lasers can be a hazard
The light level (irradiance) at the NOHD is at the Maximum Permissible Exposure or MPE. Farther than the NOHD, the irradiance falls below the MPE, and is generally considered safe.
Being exposed to laser light within the NOHD does NOT mean that a person will automatically receive an eye injury, or even is likely to have an injury. The NOHD is a “nominal” hazard distance, not an actual hazard distance. The closer the person is to the laser, the greater the chance of an injury, as indicated by the colors above.
Understand why laser beams are less hazardous at greater distances
A human pupil is about 0.16-0.28 inches (4-7 mm) across, depending on lighting conditions. If a beam is, say, 6 inches across, then clearly most of the beam power does not go through the pupil:
That’s why a laser beam that can pop balloons or light cigarettes up close, could be eye-safe hundreds of feet away.
Now, an eye-safe beam may still be very bright. It could cause temporary flashblindness, or vision-blocking glare, or be a distraction. This would be a hazard to persons such as pilots during critical phases of flight. The second part of the calculator above lists the distances for those visual interference hazards.
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- If a laser pointer had an output power of 5 milliwatts and a beam divergence of 1 milliradian, the beam would be considered eye safe for momentary exposure (blink or turn away within 1/4 second) after about 50 feet. At 500 feet, even deliberate staring into the beam would not cause an injury.
For a stronger beam such as 499 milliwatts — the highest power Class 3B laser — the beam would be considered eye safe for momentary exposure after about 520 feet.
The “eye safe” distance is called the Nominal Ocular Hazard Distance, or NOHD.
The NOHD has a built-in safety or reduction factor. As the color-coded diagram below indicates, a laser beam is most hazardous at close range (red), and gradually becomes less hazardous until at the NOHD the chance of an injury is considered “vanishingly small.”
The ED50 distance is about 1/3 of the NOHD. At the ED50 distance, there is a 50/50 chance of the laser causing the smallest medically noticeable retinal lesion under laboratory conditions where both the laser and the eye are stationary. Often such a lesion will heal, in the same way that a minor skin burn can heal. Beyond the ED50 distance, the chance of having a retinal lesion is further reduced.
For a 5 mW 1 mrad laser, the ED50 distance is 16 feet. For a 499 mW 1 mrad laser, the ED50 distance is about 164 feet.
This helps explain why a laser that is nominally hazardous at a certain distance (the NOHD) is extremely unlikely to cause even a small injury at that distance.
There is more information about the NOHD and the ED50 distance on this page.
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- The illustration above compares a 7 mm dark-adapted pupil to a 150 mm diameter laser beam. The title states that “Less than 1% of this laser beam’s power goes into the pupil of an eye 500 feet away”.
As with so many aspects of laser hazards, there are important details to consider.
The beam is brighter in the center
The area of a 7 mm diameter circle compared with a 150 mm diameter circle is 38.5 mm2 divided by 17,671 mm2, or 0.0022 which is also 0.22%. Said another way, a 7 mm circle’s area represents only 0.22% of a 150 mm circle’s area.
However, the center of a typical laser beam is brighter than the edges. If a person’s pupil was in the center as illustrated, it would receive more than 0.22% of the light.
The exact exposure would depend on what part of the laser beam went in the eye. To be conservative, we simply state that a 7 mm pupil would receive “less than 1% of the laser’s light”.
A smaller pupil is safer
Another aspect is that the pupil may be smaller than 7 mm, meaning it lets in less laser light.
A completely dark-adapted pupil is generally 7-8 mm in diameter. But for a pilot in an aircraft, their pupil is NOT dark-adapted. There are instrument displays and lights in the cockpit, and city lights (when landing) outside the cockpit.
Let’s say the pupil is more constricted, at 5 mm. This has an area of 19.6 mm2, which is half of the 38.5 mm2 area of a 7 mm pupil. This increases safety — only half the amount of laser light can get through the pupil and onto the retina, compared to a completely dark-adapted eye.
A moving beam is less hazardous
Yet another aspect that increases safety is that the laser light is moving, relative to the pupil.
If the laser light is always focused on the same area of the retina, this allows heat to build up. But in many situations where a person is trying to avoid a laser light being hand-aimed at them, the light is moving relative to the eye.
- This movement may be because of the inherent difficulty of keeping a laser beam on target over hundreds of feet. (You can see this in videos of lasers being aimed at helicopters, where the beam only occasionally hits the camera lens. Each frame below is 1/30 of a second; only one of the frames is a direct hit on the lens.)
- This movement may also be due to the illuminated person moving their head and eyes to avoid directly staring into the beam.
In both cases, the laser light does not have as much time to stay on one spot on the retina. This reduces the chance of causing a lesion or burn.
Of course, if a laser is powerful enough and a person is close enough — say, within the NOHD and certainly within the ED50 distance — a brief 1/4 second exposure can cause a retinal lesion.
But for laser illuminations of pilots at aircraft distances of many hundreds or thousands of feet, even powerful lasers are considered by experts to be unlikely to cause serious or permanent harm.
A special message for laser pointer users
Plus, laser incidents create a bad image and can lead to laser pointers being banned. This has happened in a number of areas. (In New South Wales, you can be fined for possessing a laser pointer, and you can go to jail for up to 14 years for a laser assault.) There are strong calls in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. to restrict or ban lasers.
It is really simple: NEVER aim a laser beam at an aircraft, a vehicle, or towards strangers. In other words, DON’T ANNOY PEOPLE WITH THE LASER BEAM.
For more specific information about laser pen hazards and safe use, see the various topics in the menu at left. For a quick summary aimed at consumers, check out the FDA’s December 2010 safety notification.