Laser light attacks on planes


I have been reading about the increased number of incidents in which pilots of planes report that they have been blinded by laser beams aimed at the cockpit from the ground. I was surprised by this since the lasers one uses in everyday life are quite low in power and it is not easy to aim them. But it turns out that these lasers, which can be easily purchased online, are more powerful than the ones used in meeting presentations and are getting even more powerful. Authorities are treating them as dangerous practices and urging a crackdown.

I still wondered what the chances were that the people using them would be able to accurately hit a plane cockpit even if it was fairly low because it was taking off or landing. But these videos taken from helicopters and planes show that lasers sweeping across the pilots’ field of vision can produce quite a blinding effect and so the concerns about this practice have to be taken seriously. The people doing such things may see them as pranks but they are dangerous.

Comments

  1. says

    I believe they are concerned that lasers can be used to project messages and slogans – which might compete for ad revenue or allow uncontrolled speech. That’s the real reason behind the regulation. Since lasers are a beam, you can easily shield your eyes from them.

  2. says

    Marcus, you may be falling into InfoWars level conspiracies and paranoia. Yes, you can shield your eyes, but it’s a little late once the lasers have already hit them. Then there is the whole concept of do we really want pilots doing their jobs while shielding their eyes?

  3. says

    Marcus, you may be falling into InfoWars level conspiracies and paranoia.

    Well, that is my job.

    Yes, you can shield your eyes, but it’s a little late once the lasers have already hit them. Then there is the whole concept of do we really want pilots doing their jobs while shielding their eyes?

    By the time the beam has gone through a sheet of slightly scratched polycarbonate, it’s not going to hurt anything. And pilots deal with lots nastier things like rain and birds. I’m not saying it’s good but it’s certainly something pilots can handle.

    I am concerned about drones. A drone towing a long strand of aramid cloth would be a bad thing to ingest into a jet engine. My DJI has carbon fiber rotors and I sure wouldn’t want to see them ingested into anything at all… (PS if you want to get homeland security all upset, consider the ramifications of a drone trailing heavy copper cable across power substation transformers) (though a .300 win/mag would do the job even better from a safer distance)

  4. moarscienceplz says

    Marcus Ranum #3

    And pilots deal with lots nastier things like rain and birds. I’m not saying it’s good but it’s certainly something pilots can handle.

    Really? Are you a pilot? Have you experienced this yourself, or can you provide us with any data to support this position?

    I admit that I think RT is a propaganda site with the primary purpose of casting western countries in a bad light. So I do not give a lot of weight to these RT videos. Also, what a camera sees is sometimes very different from what an eye sees. But, simple logic supports the pilots’ claim. WHY IN THE WORLD would multiple pilots complain about this if it wasn’t a real problem? Did dozens of pilots conspire to short-sell the stock of laser manfacturers and then tell lies to reap illicit stock market gains? Seems pretty ridiculous to me.

  5. says

    moarscienceplz@#4:
    Really? Are you a pilot? Have you experienced this yourself, or can you provide us with any data to support this position

    I have a good friend who’s a commercial pilot, who I actually asked about lasers a few years ago when the topic first started to come up. So, yeah, I tried to actually inform myself. The reason I was curious was, specifically, that I often look for an agenda behind what the FBI announces – on account of that organization’s longstanding habit of lying like fuck about stuff; sometimes cleverly and sometimes because they have their own reasons.

    Yeah, pilots do complain about lasers. They also complain more about other stuff. My data set is: one pilot. And I spent 4 hours in the copilot’s seat of a piper apache (admittedly in very fine skies over canada in 2002) So yeah, I have some experience about the diffusion effect you’d get from the windscreen – you can clearly see it in the video.

    Demanding personal experience is kind of an “internet debater” kind of dodge, don’t you think? First off, I’m not in a debate with you, I’m just talking about what I know about stuff I know something about. So please don’t waste your limited supply of faux skepticism on me; I know you’ve only got a small amount in your clue-dropper and you should use it more strategically, IMO.

    WHY IN THE WORLD would multiple pilots complain about this if it wasn’t a real problem? Did dozens of pilots conspire to short-sell the stock of laser manfacturers and then tell lies to reap illicit stock market gains? Seems pretty ridiculous to me.

    Wow, you beat the stuffing right out of that strawman!!! Good job. Now, are you going to keep trying to imply I’m ignorant or lying, while you’re so intellectually honest you can’t even make a decent strawman? That one you’ve got there looks like it was made by xkcd.

  6. mary says

    It is so unfortunate when people do silly and dangerous things with lasers. As an amateur astronomer, I find a green laser pointer extremely useful in teaching others about the night sky. Mine are bought solely from legitimate astronomy stores to ensure they have not been altered in any way. Up to 5 mW is the only power I have. This level is quite adequate for sky viewing purposes and does not pose the potential dangers of higher levels.
    Green laser pointers are not toys. The more people act inappropriately, the better the chance of green laser pointers being banned altogether. That would be very unfortunate.

  7. Quantum Dad says

    Marcus Ranum at #3:

    By the time the beam has gone through a sheet of slightly scratched polycarbonate, it’s not going to hurt anything.

    I beg to differ. A diffuse reflection (think a reflection on a brushed metal kind of surface) of a visible 300 mW laser beam is capable of producing some eye damage already. Polycarbonate does not absorb significantly in the visible (it’s transparent, that’s the point!), and a slight scratch will not really reduce the intensity of the beam much. Considering that you can buy online handheld lasers with more than 900 mW of power, I would not be surprised that a pilot could be temporarily blinded by the beam from one extra-powerful “pointer” in the ground.

  8. Vicki says

    I’m not much comforted by the idea that maybe pilots are only being temporarily blinded by lasers; intoxication also wears off, but we don’t want drunk or stoned pilots. Again, bird strikes are worse, but that too is small comfort.

  9. lanir says

    I don’t wish to suggest that this is an issue that should be ignored but I’m extremely puzzled as to how a 14 year sentence for pulling a dangerous prank could possibly make sense to anyone. I have a hard time imagining it would take more than a few months of being locked up and losing control of ones life to put together the basic idea that perhaps it is not worth doing goofy things if they happen to endanger others. I assume I could be wrong but I doubt I’m quite THAT wrong.

  10. Bronan says

    I work in aviation, and I can confirm that laser blinding pilots is not a harmless prank, and is definitely a big deal. Pilots have an incredible workload, and are individuals responsible for getting “souls” to their destination safely whilst multi-tasking to an incredible degree. If the pilot in command is suddenly blinded, all of these tasks have to be suspended while proper command of the aircraft is restored, and if this happens while the aircraft is on approach to land (the most likely time that an aircraft will be targeted by laser prankster) which is also the time of highest stress and likelihood of catastrophic loss of life. You have aircraft scheduled to land in these situations sometimes as little as 10 seconds apart, and to have those careful schedules interrupted (which they ALWAYS are in the case where a pilot in command is blinded) causes huge extra financial costs even when the crew overcome the challenge.

    If you were driving a car containing your family towards a chicane in the road, and you were suddenly blinded by a guy shining a laser in your eyes, I bet you would change your tune fast. “My mate is a commercial pilot, and he doesn’t think this is a problem” would quickly turn into “why aren’t the penalties higher for putting A HIGH SPEED METAL TRAP FULL OF UNREPLACABLE LIVES even a little bit in jeopardy”.

  11. StevoR says

    @ 9. lanir : Becuase potentially this could bring down aircraft, y’know, killing people and stuff. That’s kinda serious.

    @6. mary : Our local state Astronomical Society (of which I’m a member) now issues licenses for laser pointers precisely because we’ve already passed laws in our state banning them – with a few notable exceptions – to prevent the harm of people doing this :

    Under the South Australian Summary Offences Act 1953, hand held laser pointers with an output greater than 1 milliwatt are prohibited weapons. This Guideline has been prepared to assist ASSA members using laser pointers to understand the changes to the use of laser pointers and is provided for information only and should not be regarded as legal advice.

    Note: It is the responsibility of any person using a laser pointer to confirm that their use or possession is permitted by the relevant part of the Act. … (snip) … Laser light from laser pointers can potentially burn the retina of the human eye. The danger is obviously greatest if the beam is aimed directly into the eye, rather than merely scattered from the beam and seen from the side. The danger is dependent on the wavelength of the laser light, the power of the laser pointer, the divergence of the laser beam, the distance of the person from the pointer, whether the beam is seen directly or via a reflection, how long the beam is viewed and whether the human eye’s natural ‘blink response’ to bright light occurs.

    The risk from a laser pointer is often also expressed by the ‘class’ of the laser pointer, although the definition is a little complicated and class definitions have changed in recent years. At one end of the scale, Class 1 laser pointers are safe for normal viewing. Eye damage from directly viewing the beam of a Class 2 laser pointer is usually avoided by the blink response. Class 3 laser pointers can damage an eye before it has time to blink and have the potential to cause eye injury, especially in the hands of a careless or untrained operator. Class 4 lasers are even more dangerous, higher power devices.

    Source : https://www.assa.org.au/resources/equipment-reviews/laserpointers/

    Laws in other lands obviously can and do vary.

    But yeah, that. It is areal issue and deserves to be taken seriously.

    @ Marcus Ranum : You really are getting into Conspiracy Theory territory here aren’t you? How’s your tinfoil hat fitting dude? Disappointed – even by you – and somewhat embarrassed for ya here.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    lanir #9: I don’t wish to suggest that this is an issue that should be ignored but I’m extremely puzzled as to how a 14 year sentence for pulling a dangerous prank could possibly make sense to anyone.

    I will file that away with “I didn’t know it was loaded.” It’s only called a ‘prank’ until someone gets hurt.

    BTW, this has interesting Second Amendment implications. If lasers are “arms”, then the right of the people to bear them cannot be infringed. Just like the Founding Fathers intended.
    /Scalia.

  13. says

    I went back and re-poked my pilot friend, and another pilot who’s a commercial captain (if you fly American a whole lot, you may have gotten a ride from Doug) The answers have changed. So, the first time I dug into the lasers thing was a couple years ago when it was first news. Apparently since then Doug’s been blinded 3 times. He says the diffusion effect coming in through the windscreen makes it impossible to look away – it’s like when you shoot a laser into a diamond (which is huge fun! try it!) or a candle (also: try it) Apparently one time he was on approach to Bakersfield, CA, and got lit up so badly that he had ‘position error’ (disoriented) and had to go around again on a perfectly clear night. OK, that’s scary. Another time they killed the external lights to make themselves a harder target. And yes he ducked below the panel so that he could still fly the plane while the panel blocked the incoming laser.

    The other pilot I asked made an interesting point I hadn’t considered, which is: this stuff all gets reported to the tower. And the tower is responsible for recording incidents of all types. So there is a process in place that ensures that metrics are kept – which probably serves to record the incident rate fairly realistically. He then asked me “how many times does this happen to semitrailers?” Uh. Uh. I don’t know. “Exactly.”

    Both pilots emphasized more or less what I thought I recalled from the beginning of this discussion, which is that pilots are ultra risk-averse and see absolutely no need to complicate anything in any way that degrades their performance even by the smallest amount.

    I also have a ping out on a small mailing list where I hang out, that has a half dozen private pilots on it. I’m more interested in commercial aviation pilots’ experiences since those are the guys that are going into and out of large airports and are flying large targets.

    So I stand somewhat corrected, somewhat reinforced in my views. And now I’m going to wonder if semitrailer drivers have an undocumented problem. Anyone know a bunch of semi drivers they can ask?

  14. says

    You really are getting into Conspiracy Theory territory here aren’t you? How’s your tinfoil hat fitting dude?

    (shrug) Unlike you, I don’t insist on being right all the time. Which may be why I have a fairly good track record in general.

    Maybe you should do a little research regarding laser scanner displays and how they are being regulated. If you did you might notice that the “no shine lasers at people” rules are being applied against them, even when they’re obviously not going to be a problem. Then consider that a portable laser scanner unit can beam a political message from a pretty good distance – allowing the beamer time to get away before being backtracked. There’s more stuff behind all this that I haven’t mentioned. 🙂 So imagine that there was a group of ‘anonymous’ assessing the practicality of of putting “Bush: War Criminal” down the washington monument with a laser scanner from a mile or so away, and you were asked to project how the FBI would backtrack and react to that. Research the regulations that would be thrown at someone doing that – it’s just light, right? It’s free speech, right? That’s where I’m coming from.

    Like I said, I don’t give a fractional shit whether you think I wear a tinfoil hat or not. My thinking appears to be fairly clear, internally. In fact, I find it reassuring that you don’t understand my thinking – because “clear” is certainly not the word I’d use to describe yours. Knowing you makes me feel more rational than I probably am.

    PS – Tinfoil is for losers. Lead’s the way to go. I made my buddy Gary McGraw a lead-lined cruiser hat a few years ago. The idea was to (as a joke) run it through airport security. But the damned thing weighed 10# and you couldn’t put it on your head very long without getting a neck-ache. That, and – even though I used lots of paint and glue over the lead – toxic hat syndrome was a serious concern.

  15. says

    Tinfoil is out. Velostat is in

    Sounds like polyurethana rubber with carbon in it. I’m almost embarrassed to mention that I could probably walk down to my basement and make some in a while; except I don’t like the idea of putting activated charcoal in my blender. What a mess. 😉

    It’s odd he didn’t just fixate on carbon fiber or copper mesh. That’d be so spiffy!! Layers of carbon fiber with copper between them. And a big capacitor bank in a backpack. You never know when you’re going to encounter high winds.

  16. lorn says

    No, you damn well can’t reliably defend yourself from lasers.

    Even wearing laser goggles 24/7 wouldn’t work simply because the laser goggles have to be selected for the frequency range, color, of the laser being fired. Most lasers presently being abused by begin shot at people are solid-state green and red range but more exotic lasers are becoming more common and cheap enough to pose a problem in the near future.

    Unprotected eyes can be permanently damaged by laser light. The military has, since the early 80s, had access to “dazzlers” that were designed to cause disorientation and only temporary blindness. It was known at the time that repeated exposure, or one particularly bad exposure, can permanently scar the retina. Considering that the alternative is hot lead and high explosives degraded eyesight was seen as acceptable.

    As a person who experienced temporary blindness due to reflected arc-flash as a child, ten days with eyes bandaged not knowing if I would see again, I can tell you you do not want to take the risk of even temporary damage or blindness. Of course we also have to keep in mind we are talking about aircraft. Even short term loss of even night-vision can have tragic consequences. Momentary disorientation or loss of vision can cause a loss of control and a crash. And it isn’t just the passengers and aircraft at risk. Most of these cases are happening over urban areas where the crash of even a small aircraft could burn down blocks of houses and put hundreds of people at risk.

    This isn’t a judgment call. High power lasers have their place in communications and industrial processes but there is absolutely nothing to gained by firing them at people or vehicles outside of a military setting. Low-power lasers have uses as pointers and levels , and for messing with cats, but even there don’t mess with people doing dangerous things like flying a plane , driving, or operating a crane.

    I was on a job site where someone deigned to shoot a laser pointer at the cab on the crane. The Plexiglas enclosure cause the red light to bloom and completely block the view of the load and the operator’s ability to control the load. He had to completely stop for fear of dropping the load on someone. As it was the job manger went over to the house and explained to the kid that he was putting people at risk with what turned out to be a largish laser pointer that sells for $12. The kid stopped once he knew it wasn’t a lighthearted prank.

    This stuff has to stop. We can make that happen through consensus and common sense, or we can wait for someone to die, and write laws.

  17. says

    We can make that happen through consensus and common sense, or we can wait for someone to die, and write laws.

    Yeah, I’m convinced.

    The other problem’s gonna be drones. There have been scary incidents and it’s inevitable that sooner or later someone is going to get too close to something and kill someone.

  18. StevoR says

    @17. lorn : Well writ and seconded by me especially that last line. Great comment.

    @14.Marcus Ranum : “(shrug) Unlike you, I don’t insist on being right all the time. Which may be why I have a fairly good track record in general.”

    Actually Marcus Ranum, I don’t insist on being right all the time, I just usually am! 😉

    Seriously though, I am quite open and honest about being wrong and have noted so many times. I’ve changed my views on a number of things over the years including positions I now hold that I used to see the opposite way.

    I’m sure you’ll also note I freely admit I have my weaknesses such as typing ability and often missing things on preview (often exacerbated by posting when tired and drunk because timezone and my poison / relaxation of choice) and thus having to correct them in separate extra comments which then of course means that rather than appreciating clarification people tend to accuse me of commenting too much – like that’s somehow a bad thing anyhow. Can’t win.

    Maybe you should do a little research regarding laser scanner displays and how they are being regulated. If you did you might notice that the “no shine lasers at people” rules are being applied against them, even when they’re obviously not going to be a problem.

    Obviously eh? Or maybe that’s your lack of imagination at play there? I might look into that time permitting. Any particular links or resources you’d recommend that show your case here? I certainly know about laser pointers and their issues legal and safety wise which is the immediate topic here.

    So imagine that there was a group of ‘anonymous’ assessing the practicality of of putting “Bush: War Criminal” down the washington monument with a laser scanner from a mile or so away, and you were asked to project how the FBI would backtrack and react to that. Research the regulations that would be thrown at someone doing that – it’s just light, right? It’s free speech, right?

    As always it depends upon the specifics. It could be considered creating a public nuisance and perhaps also a form of vandalism and maybe defamatory as well. As you well know there are exceptions to the whole “Freeze peach!” idea which is not unlimited or absolute. In certain circumstances it may be a legitimate form of protest, in others it may be causing other problems such as public safety,harrassment – and among other things light pollution.

    Like I said, I don’t give a fractional shit whether you think I wear a tinfoil hat or not. My thinking appears to be fairly clear, internally. In fact, I find it reassuring that you don’t understand my thinking – because “clear” is certainly not the word I’d use to describe yours. Knowing you makes me feel more rational than I probably am.

    Meh, likewise & I notice that your first and last sentences are in direct contradiction to each other there.

    Tinfoil is for losers. Lead’s the way to go. I made my buddy Gary McGraw a lead-lined cruiser hat a few years ago. The idea was to (as a joke) run it through airport security. But the damned thing weighed 10# and you couldn’t put it on your head very long without getting a neck-ache. That, and – even though I used lots of paint and glue over the lead – toxic hat syndrome was a serious concern.

    Could have been worse – it could have been made from Uranium or Osmium! 😉

  19. StevoR says

    Dangnabbed flippin’ blockquotes. Sigh. Ah well, reckon its probably clear enough here anyhow.

  20. Holms says

    Actually Marcus Ranum, I don’t insist on being right all the time, I just usually am!

    PULL THE OTHER ONE, IT HAS BELLS ON.

    I’m sure you’ll also note I freely admit I have my weaknesses such as typing ability and often missing things on preview (often exacerbated by posting when tired and drunk because timezone and my poison / relaxation of choice) and thus having to correct them in separate extra comments which then of course means that rather than appreciating clarification people tend to accuse me of commenting too much – like that’s somehow a bad thing anyhow. Can’t win.

    It’s a ‘bad thing’ to the extent that it clearly displays your posting habit: blurt out whatever is on your mind with little to no ordered structure, hit post without first hitting preview, and then add more thoughts as and when they strike you, i.e. in no particular order again.

    P.S. replies posted if you care to read them, this one and the earlier one.

  21. StevoR says

    @ ^ Holms : Regarding your first sentence there – well, citation needed, coz I go on what the evidence and reason actually says! 😉

    As for my having structure & commenting style here, yeah, it may generally be informal, sometimes colloquial and conversational but its there. My comments wouldn’t make sense without it and yeah, okay, I do often think of things to add afterward commenting and then elaborating as I keep reflecting on the topic and what as people do when they are in a conversation. Immediacy and seeing the evolution of thought (y’know showing how you get the results you get – showing your work) is one of the things that separate blog comment sections from say newspaper editorial opinion columns and books and that’s fine. That’s how it works. Its a form of discourse / discussion / communication and different folks will do things differently and yeah, I’m different and so are you which is something we all individually have in common!

    I actually do look at preview, usually, it just for some reason doesn’t work for me that well. The number of times I see something after I’ve just clicked submit, well, arrgh! Sure would be nice if we could edit instead or as well as previewing but that’s FTB for ya. Yes I could and sometimes do write and preview and cut’n’paste comments in word as well but that’s also a bit of pain and even there doesn’t always catch everything e.g. correctly spelt but wrong in context words. I’m certainly not the only person here who gets the odd typo or italics fail /blockquote fail etc .. There’s even one FTB commenter who uses “never proofreads every post a gamble” as part of their nym & I don’t see folks here attacking them for that!

    Anyhow, what matters is what the thoughts are and whether or not they are factually accurate, logically reasonable and basically right or not more than the style or even the speaker and I think on that count I’m really pretty good. Maybe not perfect – I’m a fallible and emotional and individual human being like the rest of yuz – but really pretty good in terms of factual accuracy, correct premises and providing evidence, supporting reasons, specifics and logic for why I think as I do which is credible and correct. I’d even say despite your obvious longstanding hatred of me and my, meh, mild dislike of you because of your attacks against me that we’d really agree on far more issues than we disagree FWIW.

    As for your links to your replies there, thanks for those. It is getting pretty late in those threads but I’ll check them out. I suspect we won’t agree and that I’ll be factually and logically & ethically accurate in my positions whereas you won’t be but hey, that’s okay. You have the right to your opinions and views and I equally have the right to mine – mine being right natch! 😉

    PS. If you think I’m claiming things as fact that aren’t, well, you’d be wrong and need to show your work with actual supporting evidence as I have pretty much always done throughout these debates here.

  22. Bronan says

    Drones are becoming more regulate-able, since they do have legitimate business uses, and pilots have to fulfil a bunch of criteria regarding their understanding of how controlled airspace works, notifying local airfields of intention to fly, and demonstrating that they have properly briefed themselves on the hazards.

    When a freestyler decides to fly their drone and it causes problems, legitimate users (at model flying clubs, for example) begin to police themselves for fear that if they don’t, the law will come down on their hobby. For low cost drones that anyone can buy, they have a certain range to them, and hilariously, the drone can actually be followed back to its pilot who can then be educated (something that is MUCH harder to do with laser-asses). For drones which have a wider reach, these are high cost, and more often sold by professionals who will be a bit more discerning about who they sell to, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it soon became impossible to buy such a model without a pilots license.

    Drones are probably a bigger risk to flight safety than lasers, but the solutions to the problems they cause are clearer. It wont be long before dedicated low level corridors keep them separated from general aviation (<5 years in Europe), and as collision avoidance tech becomes miniaturised inexpensive, and standardised (<2 years in Europe), it will take a deliberate effort by the pilot to cause harm.

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