A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
How to reduce incident severity: For airlines and the FAA
The pilot is the “last line of defense” in preventing an incident from turning into an accident. Even if it were possible to miraculously eliminate the majority of laser pointer incidents from ignorant persons deliberately targeting aircraft, there still may be accidental, unintended exposures. Also, there may be persons who deliberately would want to target an aircraft.
Mandatory pilot education
For this reason, it is essential that pilots learn how to recognize and recover from a laser illumination. Airlines and the FAA can get this to all pilots by providing accurate, pilot-focused information. This can be mandated by the airline or by FAA.
At a minimum, pilots can be provided with written information, similar to information found on this page.
The Air Force in February 2009 completed a 21-minute video about the laser pointer problem. This video, or the shorter, 10-minute edited version, should be mandatory viewing as part of pilots’ continuing education.
In addition to the written and/or video material, we suggest that pilots be exposed in a flight simulator to a bright light flash. This can be done during both initial training, and at least once during recurrent training. This does NOT have to be from a laser source. Tests have shown that for demonstrations to pilots and others, it is possible to safely simulate a laser strike using an inexpensive, readily available LED flashlight.
Already, pilots can be exposed to simulated lighting flashes. It should not be too difficult to come up with guidelines or a protocol for simulated laser flashes from an ordinary flashlight.
By safely experiencing a flash in the simulator, pilots will gain confidence that they will be able to handle a laser or bright light situation.
Laser Event Recorders
There has been some use of “Laser Event Recorders” in cockpits. One such device is manufactured by Optra Inc. of Topsfield, Mass. A June 2010 press release about the FBI buying LER’s for cockpit use is here. (As of 2018, the company appears to be out of business.)
Another company with laser event detection recorders is Sensing Strategies Inc. SSI has patented an optical radiation classifier method that has proved successful in characterizing direct illuminations by laser sources in high clutter environments. One implementation of this technology was tested by sensor operators under a study carried out by the University of Illinois-Chicago, reported in the journal Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine (Boyd, et al, “Technical and Operational Users Opinions of a Handheld Device to Detect Directed Energy”, May 2013). Further details about SSI’s sensors are under review for public release and the sensor technologies are ITAR controlled.
SSI is also developing under an SBIR program a remote sensing system to detect and locate (at standoff distances) threat lasers used to harass, target or damage a U.S. asset. SSI has designed, fabricated and is testing a high energy laser locator sensor (HELLOCS) using established algorithms for rapid threat identification. HELLOCS can be integrated onboard ships or aircraft depending on engagement scenario. Modeling, simulation and testing have led to deployment strategies for effective implementation.
Laser beam source detection
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory has developed a system that can provide the ground location of someone directing a laser beam into the sky. The Laser Aircraft Strike Suppression Optical System (LASSOS) uses two (or more) low-light CCD sensor cameras that observe the night sky, each with a star tracker that determines the attitude of the sensor. The cameras observe a volume of airspace such as around an airport. Beam locations are identified by analyzing the two (or more) different views to find the endpoint of the laser beam, as shown below:
In one test, LASSOS identified the ground location of a laser beam aimed into the sky, using two cameras located 9 nm away. The location was determined within 30 seconds. The system was so accurate that it could differentiate between locations separated by only 5 m.
When a laser is pointed into the sky, a small fraction of the light is scattered by molecules and aerosols in the air which forms a residual streak in the laser's path. LASSOS works by using Andor's iXon EMCCD cameras to image the scattered light from different viewpoints, providing enough data to digitally reconstruct the laser streak in three dimensions. With the calculated coordinates of the laser’s origin, the team can instantly pinpoint the precise location of the strike on Google Earth for the response teams to engage and apprehend.
A key attribute of LASSOS is that the final output is a Google Earth map with the beam and perpetrator location overlaid. This makes it easy for law enforcement to know the area they will be searching for the perpetrator.
A September 2017 MIT press release gave no indication of potential installation and operational costs, and did not indicate any further plans for testing or implementation.
Consider anti-laser windscreen film
Airbus has tested and as of summer 2017 is certifying Laser Glare Protection windscreen film. This reflects common laser wavelengths (colors) thus reducing the intensity to a manageable level. Consider installing this film on aircraft. (In September 2017 BAE Systems announced they have successfully tested anti-laser film in their lab.)
For more information
A June 2018 publication from SAE International, developed by laser/aviation safety experts, discusses mitigation strategies against laser illumination effects, specifically: (1) operational considerations, (2) education and training, and (3) whether and how to mitigate these effects using Laser Glare Protection (LGP). In addition, a brief description of devices to locate and report laser illuminations is given in Appendix D.
In January 2011, FAA issued a 4-page PDF brochure, “Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace”, which is intended for media, pilots and others. It describes the hazards of laser light, FAA flight zones, FAA regulations and publications, and what pilots can do if they experience an incident.
A similar, earlier FAA perspective is in the article “Blinded by the Light: A Look at Cockpit Laser Illumination Events” in the July/August 2009 issue of FAA Aviation News. The link is to an online PDF of the entire magazine; scroll to magazine page 28 to find the article.
Additional links, many from aviation-related sources, are on the Links page.