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NIST System Helps Police Pinpoint Laser Attacks

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GAITHERSBURG, Md., Jan. 16, 2014 — A simple measurement system that characterizes the beams from laser pointers could help law enforcement cope with the growing aviation threat of laser attacks.

The number of reported incidents of handheld laser pointers aimed at aircraft — with potentially dangerous effects on pilots' vision — has risen from 384 in 2006 to 3482 in 2012, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Although knowingly aiming a handheld laser at an aircraft became a federal crime in 2012, the trend shows no sign of abating, with preliminary totals for 2013 topping 4000.

Joshua Hadler and colleagues in NIST's Physical Measurement Laboratory's Quantum Electronics and Photonics Division have devised a simple, accurate measurement system to help, and the number of arrests and prosecutions has increased accordingly.

Simulated laser flashes at three levels as they would be seen by the pilot of an aircraft. Images: FAA

“ talking to experts...I found that the vast majority of prosecutions were failing, due in no small part to a basic lack of knowledge about the laser devices on the part of nearly everyone in the trial process, including lawyers, judges and jury members,” said Hadler, a physicist in the Laser Radiometry Project, and NIST’s Laser Safety Officer. “What they needed was to be able to acquire and present quantitative data about a device’s power and its effects at a specified range that could be used in the judicial process.”

That need took concrete shape for Hadler in the spring of 2013 when he was asked by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California to characterize a green laser pointer that two defendants had used to project a beam at a Fresno, Calif., police helicopter and at an emergency transport helicopter for a children’s hospital.

Hadler had previously worked with the FBI on calibrations of event recorders for aircraft cockpits, and he was already well known in the field for a widely reported study of power measurements he and colleagues conducted on 112 randomly purchased laser pointers. The results showed that 90 percent of green pointers and 44 percent of red pointers exceeded maximum power output specified in the Code of Federal Regulations.

“Many people saw these laser pointers as just inexpensive novelties or some kind of small bright flashlight,” said Hadler, who undertook the survey following a growing accumulation of anecdotal evidence. “So in partnership with the NIST Safety Office, we developed a laser-pointer test rig that was simple and easy to use, and would give us an accurate characterization of these devices so we could determine whether they were safe for use in a presentation or demonstration.”

Components of a typical green laser pointer. Three different wavelengths are involved in creating the laser beam. One, at 808 nm, pumps a crystal that lases at 1064 nm, in the infrared. That beam then travels through another crystal that doubles the frequency, cutting the wavelength to 532-nm green. All three wavelengths are emitted, and the pointer's total power output is the sum of these. Click on image for enlarged view. Courtesy of Chris Chen, Wikimedia Commons. 

The report for the Fresno case also required information on how much the laser beam diverged. For this, Hadler used a pyroelectric laser camera.

“That expanded the scope of our work,” he said, “and provided divergence measurements necessary to calculate the exposure to the aircraft at the time of the incident. The FAA requires pilots to file a report of every laser incident, noting color, duration, visual effects, visibility and altitude. With that information, plus the weather and air quality at the time, I am able to provide a pretty decent calculation of the irradiance on the aircraft’s cockpit.” The trial resulted in a conviction.

The FAA has a framework in place for understanding the different minimum laser irradiance thresholds to induce a particular effect (see animated image). The highest level, 100 mW or more per cm2, can cause flash blindness, persistent after-images, loss of night vision and other problems.

Diagram of system to test handheld lasers Diagram of a two-stage system to characterize the power output (Stage 1) and beam divergence (Stage 2) of a laser pointer.

“The photoreceptors in the retina are completely overwhelmed, making it very hard to see anything accurately until the effect subsides,” Hadler said. “It could take a pilot potentially minutes to recover.” (If exposure exceeds 1 mW/cm2, there may also be retinal damage, which is possible within the approximately 0.25 seconds it takes for an exposed person to avert his or her gaze.)

The second level, at 5 microwatts per cm2, can produce glare that makes it temporarily very difficult to see anything in the field of vision besides the glare. The third range, at 50 nanowatts per cm2, may cause very bright, distracting spots that can be a substantial hazard when pilots are performing complicated operations.

In 2012, about 10 laser strikes per day took place in the U.S., 94 percent of which were made by green lasers. The vast majority occurred between 10:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

Making a convincing legal case against perpetrators will require sophisticated measurements of both laser power and divergence. But sending every device involved in every case to NIST for characterization is not an optimal solution, Hadler said. “Ideally, they should be able to get the data faster and cheaper. But at present, these sorts of measurements are simply not being done by forensics labs.

“Yet you can duplicate what we have in our lab for about $30,000, or the cost for a simpler setup could be as low as $10,000 – well within the budget of many facilities. One way to begin the process is that NIST would develop a handheld laser characterization system that evaluates both beam divergence and spectral power distribution. We would calibrate it, take it to, for example, an FBI lab, install it, train the personnel and then hand them the keys,” he said.

Hadler is scheduled to make a presentation on the idea in February at the annual science meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Seattle.

For more information, visit
Jan 2014
beam divergence
Increase in the diameter of an initially collimated beam, as measured in milliradians (mrad) at specified points; i.e., where irradiance is a given fraction (often 1/e2) of peak irradiance.
laser pointer
Handheld optical laser device containing a semiconductor or DPSS source. The output is corrected via internal collimating optics. For typical use the output is reduced to eyesafe operation power. (5 mW)
aviationbeam divergenceBusinessConsumerdefenseFAAFBIIMSJoshua Hadlerlaser pointerNISTpilotTest & Measurementlaser cameralaser irradiancelasers

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