Feds Crack Down on Laser Pointers
ROMULUS, Mich., Feb. 16, 2006 – After 16 pilots complained that someone shined potentially blinding laser light into their cockpits while they were landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Monday night, federal authorities say they are cracking down on what they consider to be a growing threat to airplane safety.
According to published reports, it was the second rash of incidents at the airport in the past six months. The FAA has said that there were 305 laser incidents between late 2004 and the beginning of this year. "We treat it as a very serious matter," FBI Special Agent Dawn Clenney told The Detroit News. "Laser beams can disorient pilots responsible for an airplane full of passengers."
FAA officials told reporters that the pilots said the beams appeared to be coming from an area around the airport, which police searched but didn't find anything suspicious. "If it's just kids or some irresponsible adults, they should be warned that this is a serious matter and will be treated as such," Dearborn Heights Police Capt. Lee Gavin was quoted as saying.
A small red laser pointer in action. Because they project intense, concentrated spots of light, hand-held laser pointers can be dangerous if beamed into someone's eyes.
The light energy that laser pointers can aim into the eye can be more damaging than staring directly into the sun. The US Food and Drug Administration classifies lasers according to the hazard posed by the amount and type of light they emit. Hazard classes range from Class I to IV, with Class IV lasers being the most hazardous. Class I products, which require no special precautions, include laser printers and CD players where the laser radiation is usually contained within the product. Products exceeding Class I permit access to some amount of laser radiation. Class II and IIa products include bar code scanners, while Class IIIa products include laser pointers. Class IIIb and IV products include laser light shows, industrial and research lasers.
In recent years federal authorities have cracked down on the misuse of laser pointers – some of which can project concentrated spots of light as far as two miles – by using anti-terrorism laws for prosecution. A memo sent to law enforcement agencies by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department in 2004 said there is evidence that terrorists have explored using such lasers as weapons, and pointing laser beams at airplanes could be considered a terrorist act under the US Patriot Act, carrying up to 20 years in prison.
Fiber optic cable worker David Banach of Parsippany, N.J., is awaiting sentencing after admitting to shining a high-power green laser pointer at an airplane 3000 ft up as it was coming in for a landing at an airport near his home in December 2004. The pilot and co-pilot of the plane, which had six people aboard, said the flash coming through their windshield temporarily blinded them but they were able to land safely. Although Banach, who initially claimed he was stargazing with his daughter, could receive up to 20 years in prison and be fined up to $500,000 under the Patriot Act, an agreement with federal prosecutors will likely spare him from serving time. He is scheduled to be sentenced this month, according to news reports.
On its Web site, the Laser Institute of America attributes the increase in laser pointer incidents to the fact that laser pointers have become very affordable in recent years, some costing $20 or less. At that price, parents and children are often treating the potentially damaging instruments as toys. The institute cites as evidence a letter it received from a woman describing how other mothers she knew bought laser pointers for their elementary-aged children so they could imitate Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and duel with them. The institute has also received reports of people shining laser pointers at athletes during sporting events and at people as they are driving.
Last month someone at Philips Arena, home to the Atlanta Hawks, tried to distract Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player LeBron James as he stood at the free-throw line by shining a red laser beam onto his forehead. That person has not been caught.
For more information about lasers and laser safety, visit: www.laserinstitute.org
- Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
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