A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use


Overview of laser and aviation safety

FAA Laser Safety Initiative. This is the main web page for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to inform pilots and the public about laser hazards. One link leads to a page where laser incidents can be reported. Another link leads to the FAA’s Laser Hazards & Effects web page which has additional links to FAA and FDA information, plus a long 21-minute video. (A shorter 10-minute version of the video at YouTube condenses the main details.)

“Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace”, also known as “Medical Facts for Pilots” (AM-400-10/3), a 4-page PDF brochure from the FAA intended for media, pilots and others. Describes the hazards of laser light, FAA flight zones, FAA regulations and publications, and what pilots can do if they experience an incident. Written by Nakagawara, Wood and Montgomery.

An August 22 2016 article written by Southern California News Group writer Lily Leung gives a good overview of many issues surrounding laser strikes on aircraft. The story, published in a number of southern California newspapers, describes the effects of laser light on pilots, and many of the efforts being undertaken to reduce laser incidents. It is well-researched with only one small limitation (laser potential for eye damage is discussed but the article does not note the difference between close-up hazards and the eye-safe but visually interfering light at aviation distances). A good background for anyone new to the topic.

“Blinded by the Light: A Look at Cockpit Laser Illumination Events”, an article by Tom Hoffman in the July/August 2009 issue of FAA Aviation News. The link is to an online PDF of the entire magazine; scroll down to magazine page 28 to find the article.

"Pinpointing the Problem", an article by Tod Macuda from the Spring 2009 issue of Vertical 911. The online version's abstract is: "Laser strikes are an increasingly common hazard to aviation, and to parapublic helicopter operators in particular. ... this article... explains the nature of the threat and how pilots can cope with it." The article discusses laws in the U.S. and Canada.

“The Effects of Laser Illumination of Aircraft”, a February 2009 medical briefing leaflet from the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA). Has a basic summary of laser exposure effects on pilots’ eyes and ability to safely fly the aircraft. Includes laser classifications, factors affecting lasers in aviation, and recommended actions if a pilot is laser illuminated.

“The Laser Threat: Authorities struggle to shut off the beams aimed into cockpits”, a January 2014 article in Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, written by aviation author Christine Negroni. Discusses not only the hazards to pilots, but what is trying to be done to reduce incidents and catch perpetrators.

“Laser threats to aircraft”, statistical analysis by Dr. Todd Curtis of AirSafe.com of 17,663 laser incidents reported to the U.S. FAA from 2010 through 2014. Covers day-of-the-week and month-of-the-year to find out when illuminations are most likely. Has an improved, cleaned-up version of the FAA’s raw data available in Excel and CSV formats.

Lasers and aviation safety article at Wikipedia. This is currently (2013) a good overview of the issue of aviation safety. The original page was written by this website’s author, who helped develop laser-reporting regulations adopted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Of course, this is subject to the anyone-can-edit caution that one should use with any Wikipedia source.

“Lasers and Aviation Safety” A printable PDF document giving an overview of the issue. This was published as a paper in the Proceedings of the International Laser Safety Conference, March 2009. It contains material similar to the Wikipedia article.

Lasers and aviation safety article from Pangolin Laser Systems. This is an earlier version of the Wikipedia article, with a focus on laser light shows. Pangolin has been a strong supporter of outdoor safety efforts. Additional Pangolin-supported pages include Laser shows and aviation safety, focusing more specifically on light shows, and What does a laser look like when it shines on pilots in an airplane cockpit?

A January 26 2005 report to the U.S. Congress, Lasers Aimed at Aircraft Cockpits: Background and Possible Options to Address the Threat to Aviation Safety and Security.

"How to Keep Planes From Colliding With Lasers", an article by Hadley Leggett of Wired Science. Describes how observatories use spotters to avoid having powerful astronomy lasers hit aircraft. Also describes a new automated system using radio tracking of aircraft emissions.

laserstrikeprotection.com, website from Night Flight Concepts with information and resources for fixed and rotary wing pilot safety, and public education.

In April 2013, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department released a video entitled “Laser Strike”. They use this for training, and it may be useful to other law enforcement and aviators.

Laser pointer general information

“Illuminating the Hazards of Powerful Laser Products”. A webpage and a downloadable PDF brochure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both versions have the same information, about the hazards of powerful (> 5mW) laser pointers, a summary of FDA’s authority over lasers, and tips for consumers. Issued in June 2009.

“Does FDA regulate these new powerful laser ‘pointers’ and are they hazardous?” A webpage from FDA stating that handheld, battery-powered lasers must be under 5 milliwatts. Gives general safety information for consumers and prospective purchasers (what to look for).

" 'Overpowered' Laser Pointer Sales Prompt FDA Probe". Photonics.com's comprehensive overview from April 2005 that is still relevant. Discusses FDA's concerns "about their potential to cause eye damage and aircraft disasters". Recounts some eye injury incidents. Goes over visual interference from pilots. Has details of Visual Warning System lasers deliberately aimed at pilots straying into Washington D.C. airspace. Tells how high-power laser pointers can legally be sold on the Internet, and at least one valid use.

Laser pointer article at Wikipedia. Contains a list of pointer laws in various jurisdictions. Of course, this is subject to the anyone-can-edit caution that one should use with any Wikipedia source.

Debate: Ban on laser pointers. A pro-and-con discussion at “Debatepedia”, run by the International Debate Education Association. While there are some inaccuracies or misconceptions in the material, there are also some interesting perspectives.

Laser pointer eye safety

Laser safety article at Wikipedia.

Safety Recommendations of Laser Pointers. A 6-page document written by James Rockwell and Bill Ertle (Rockwell Laser Industries) and Eugene Moss (National Institutes of Occupational Safety & Health) in March 2005. It covers pointers, pointer safety, vision effects, incidents, and safety practices.

Managing Retinal Injuries from Lasers, an overview from the American Academy of Opthalmology of eye injury types, detection and treatment.

“Mayo Clinic ophthalmologists have found commercially available Class 3A [less than 5 mW] green laser pointers can cause visible harm to the eye’s retina with exposures as short as 60 seconds... Dr. Robertson does not advocate against use of green laser pointers; rather, he advocates against their misuse.” From a Mayo Clinic press release, May 9 2005.

Sam’s Laser FAQ has a detailed page about laser safety, with many views on this issue -- most from hobbyists and laser enthusiasts.

A discussion of laser protective measures such as goggles, and why these “present a difficult problem for [those] who may be faced with any of these lasers”.

A letter published June 8 2010 in the British Medical Journal describing “Maculopathy from handheld green diode laser pointer.” The article is dense for non-eye specialists, and a British laser expert privately told us the letter is full of inaccuracies. However, the expert agrees with the article’s basic message: a handheld laser pointer can cause injury.

Safety for homebuilt laser pointers

ILDA has a Safety warning for the “DVD Laser Flashlight Hack”. This discusses safety considerations for those building a 245 milliwatt laser taken from a DVD drive.

Comprehensive review of the Wicked Laser Spyder III Pro Arctic series

The best-known high-powered handheld laser is the Wicked Laser Arctic. It has become the “poster child” for potentially irresponsible laser use. Maximum PC has done a comprehensive review of the Arctic laser and its safety implications. (We also have a review here at LaserPointerSafety.com.)

Online courses and webinars

Webinar recordings from Washington Laboratories Academy. As of mid-August 2016, they have two recordings, on laser product safety and laser facility safety. A third webinar on laser product classification is scheduled for late August 2016 and should be posted online within a few weeks.

(If you know of any additional online courses, please let us know and we will add them.)

U.S. Federal Aviation Administration

Laser FAQ and Contact Information This is for anyone using lasers outdoors. It includes links to the FAA forms that are required to be filled out.

The Effects of Laser Illumination on Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots During Final Approach A June 2004 FAA study of laser light hazards to pilots. The study is summarized on this page.

“Laser Illumination of Pilots in the National Airspace System” PowerPoint presentation by Van Nakagawara of the FAA, addressing the plenary session of the International Laser Safety Conference, March 2009 in Reno, NV. Gives an overview of the issue. Contains statistics on laser incidents by year, region, time of day, etc.

U.K. Civil Aviation Authority

CAA Safety Notice SN-2012/005, “Laser Attacks”. Contains some background information on the hazards, plus detailed recommendations for pilots and ATC controllers on what to do before, during and after a laser illumination.

CAA Aviation Laser Exposure Self-Assessment. Intended for pilots, but useful for anyone who has been exposed to a direct laser beam and who is concerned about adverse effects and/or injury. Contains a grid to help determine if there may be blind spots, and a flowchart to determine whether to see a specialist.

Laser regulatory history

“The Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968: History, Accomplishments and Future” by Vivi Tran Lee. This 65-page 2006 paper was written for a Harvard Law School class. It is an excellent overview of how the FDA and CDRH came to regulate various products including lasers. Has 80 references to lasers throughout.

Laser and industry groups

The International Laser Display Association is the only worldwide trade group for those doing laser shows and displays. ILDA Members often do outdoor shows, so the association has been active in regulating laser usage. ILDA is not directly concerned with laser pointers, although the group does recognize that adverse publicity about laser pointers could affect perceptions of outdoor laser shows. That is why ILDA has helped sponsor this website.

The SAE G10-T Laser Safety Hazards Committee includes civilian and military aviation experts, pilots, laser operators and others interested in laser-airspace safety. The committee has worked since the early 1990s on this issue. Its studies and recommendations form the basis for ANSI and IEC regulations, and for laws in the U.S. and other countries. Anyone with an active ongoing interest in this area should consider joining the committee, to keep up-to-date on the many issues in this area and also to help constructively shape its efforts.

The American National Standards Institute “Z136” is a set of recommended standards for the safe use of lasers. ANSI Z136.1 deals with safe use of lasers in general. Z136.6 is safe use of lasers outdoors. Those interested can join the ANSI SSC-6 Committee, which helps revise and extend the Z136.6 outdoor laser standard.

The IEC issues international standards in a variety of areas. IEC Technical Committee 76, “Optical radiation safety and laser equipment” oversees the laser safety standard 60825. Standard 60825-1 is for lasers in general, 60825-3 is guidance for laser displays and shows; both of these include outdoor safety as part of the standard.

The Directed Energy Professional Society fosters research and development in directed energy (DE), including high energy laser (HEL) and high power microwave (HPM) technologies, for national defense and civilian applications through professional communication and education. Some of their journals, books and symposia proceedings may have information on high-power laser effects and bioeffects. For example, there are four papers of interest in the 13th Annual Directed Energy Symposium Proceedings (2010) about the effect of lasers on various tasks such as driving and at checkpoints.