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  • House OKs Laser Pointer Bill
May 2007
WASHINGTON, May 23, 2007 -- Anyone who is seized by the urge to point a laser pointer at the cockpit of an airplane might think better of it, thanks to a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would make it a criminal act punishable by five years in prison.

Sponsored by Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., the bill, approved by the House on Tuesday, is expected to clear the Senate after it negotiates exceptions such as using the lasers for defense research or to signal for help, according to news reports.

HR 1615, the Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2007, would amend title 18, US Code, to provide penalties for aiming laser pointers at airplanes. [Update: referred to Senate committee on May 23, 2007. Status: Received in the Senate and read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. According to (May 2, 2008), debate may be taking place on a companion bill in the Senate. -- 6/11/08]

The legislation comes after more than 500 reported incidents since 1990 of pilots being blinded or disoriented in flight by laser exposure. One incident occurred in Central Florida while the pilot of a Seminole County Sheriff's helicopter conducted a search for a burglary suspect, according to a statement on Keller's Web site.

"Aiming a laser beam into the cockpit of an airplane is a clear and present danger to the safety of all those onboard the aircraft," Keller said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said pilots have reported 186 laser incidents this year and more than 900 since November 2004, around the time it began tracking these distractions to domestic flights, the Washington Post reported this week. "Before 2004, these incidents were tallied anecdotally, but a spike that year prompted more rigorous reporting," it said. The FAA said no aircraft has crashed as the result of a laser pointer but that it's "only a matter of time before one of these laser-beam pranksters ends up killing over 200 people in a commercial-airline crash."

During a floor speech, Keller described how a laser pointer in 1996 distracted the helicopter pilot working for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, the Orlando Sentinal reported. "The officer was searching Casselberry for burglary suspects when a laser beam hit the helicopter's cockpit glass, expanding to a blinding red light the size of a basketball. No one was hurt, but a 31-year-old man was charged with two counts of culpable negligence. Later, the pilot said he was worried that the laser beam could have been the sight for a rifle," the article said.

The FAA said green and red are the most common laser-pointer colors reported in the incidents.

Nicholas A. Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, spoke in March before the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, on recent laser incidents and their potential impact on aviation safety. He was accompanied by Van Nakagawara, a research optometrist and vision research team leader at the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). Nakagawara is the lead author of a study, "The Effects of Laser Illumination on Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots During Final Approach," published in June 2004.

Sabatini said that in recent years, laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) devices "have become less expensive and more commonplace. Lasers are used in supermarket scanners, CD and DVD players, construction and surveying instruments, laser pointers for presentations and for other medical and industrial purposes. Also, lasers are often used outdoors as part of orchestrated laser light shows at theme parks, casinos and special events." (See also: 'Overpowered' Laser Pointer Sales Prompt FDA Probe)

"The issue of how lasers affect pilots and whether they pose a threat to aviation safety has received media attention recently," Sabatinia said. "The aviation safety issue is very straightforward. Obviously, pilots use their eyes to obtain the vast majority (approximately 80 percent) of all the information needed to safely fly an aircraft. Operation of an aircraft at night presents additional visual challenges. Exposure to relatively bright light such as a laser, when the eye is adapted to low-light levels, can result in temporary visual impairment. Visual effects can last from several seconds to several minutes."

The three most common physiological effects associated with exposure to bright lights are glare, flash-blindness and afterimage, Sabatinia said. The principal concern for pilots, he said, is the possibility of being illuminated with a laser during terminal operations, which include approach, landing and takeoff.

"Pilots conducting low-altitude operations at night are particularly vulnerable to accidental or malicious laser illumination," Sabatini said. "Let me state at the outset that, to date, no accidents have been attributed to the illumination of air crew members by lasers. While a few of these incidents have resulted in reported eye injury, no civilian pilot has had any permanent visual impairment as a result of laser exposure. However, given the considerable number of reported laser incidents ... the potential for an aviation accident does exist."

He emphasized that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "assures us that they have no information that would suggest that any of these incidents is in any way related to terrorist activity." (See also: Handheld Laser 'Not a Deathray')

Sabatini said the FAA has no authority to either regulate lasers or take enforcement action against individuals who illuminate aircraft cockpits.

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority to regulate light-emitting products and electronic product radiation," he said. "With respect to the enforcement issue, federal, state and local law enforcement entities have the authority to prosecute individuals who recklessly illuminate aircraft cockpits. Certainly, FAA has an important role in working with these entities to ensure aviation safety, but our role is not a primary one."

The FDA regulates lasers under its "Performance Standards for Light-Emitting Products." This FDA standard uses the American National Standard Institute (ANSI Z136.1) recommended maximum permissible exposure (MPE) of 2.5 mWs per centimeter squared for continuous wave lasers, which is applied to a previously established Normal Flight Zone to prevent ocular tissue damage in all navigable airspace. The MPE is used to calculate the nominal ocular hazard distance (NOHD), which is the distance of a laser beam beyond which an individual may be exposed without risk of ocular tissue damage.

As of Jan. 19, 2005, all pilots were requested by Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta to report any laser sightings to air traffic controllers, who are required to share these reports through the Federal Domestic Events Network.

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