A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use

Fast laser pointer facts for media

Laser pointer hazards

Aviation incidents: The main hazard for aviation is that pilots can be distracted or temporarily flashblinded by the light from a laser beam, as explained in more detail on the Laser hazards to aviation page and the Basic principles of laser hazards page. At aviation distances (being many hundreds or thousands of feet in the air), laser light from the ground is a large, windscreen-filling “blob” —unlike the tiny dot a laser makes at close range.

If the laser light is strong enough, pilots may also suffer temporary eye effects such as eye irritation, tears, headache or pain.

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Public domain photo from the U.S. FAA, showing how a laser beam spreads over long distances and can fill the windscreen. The FAA’s highest-resolution version is here.

Fortunately, hazardous laser effects which can occur at close range, such as cutting or burning materials, cannot happen at longer ranges of hundreds or thousands of feet as occur during ground-to-air laser incidents. This is because over such distances a laser beam spreads from a concentrated dot to a large diffuse glow, thus spreading the laser’s power over many square inches or feet.

For this reason, experts say it is unlikely that serious or permanent eye injury could occur.

As of March 19 2015, there have been no documented permanent eye injuries from any of the over 21,000 laser incidents reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration since 2004. More specifically, FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette told LaserPointerSafety on that date: “The FAA is unaware of any U.S. commercial pilot who has suffered permanent eye damage as a result of exposure to laser light when in the cockpit.” (Update: As of July 1 2016, there have been over 42,000 laser incidents reported to the U.S. FAA and the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority. In spring 2015 a pilot claimed to have an eye injury; laser experts who subsequently studied the case called it “suspect for a number of reasons”.)

Visible laser light would only damage the light-absorbing retina since visible light passes through the clear cornea and lens without any effect. It can be difficult for medical personnel without laser lesion experience to properly identify the cause of retinal abnormalities; for example, whether an injury was pre-existing. Any report of a ground-based laser causing a retinal burn or lesion to a pilot would be exceptional, and should be independently verified by laser eye experts.

  • Number and type of aviation incidents: FAA requires pilots to report any laser sightings in the U.S. In 2015, there were 7,703 aircraft that reported seeing lasers. Based on a mid-2011 study of the FAA reports, most lasers -- 73% of the incidents -- were outside the aircraft and did not enter the cockpit. In 81-95% of the incidents, the laser was not tracking the aircraft. This means that only 27% of incidents had laser light on or through the windows, and only 5-19% (the study is unclear) were deliberately aiming for the aircraft. Pilots reported eye effects or injuries in 1.5% of the incidents. Serious or permanent confirmed eye injuries are rare (see below for more on “Why pilot reports of injuries may not be accurate”.)

Non-aviation incidents: Serious or permanent eye injuries from consumer lasers are very rare. Only a few injuries per year worldwide are reported due to consumer lasers -- and roughly half of these turn out to be self-inflicted (e.g., a teen tries to have a “lightshow” in his eye). Yes, there are some media reports and hospital reports of incidents resulting in temporary effects such as eye irritation, spots, or headache. But these are not the same as doctor-confirmed serious or permanent injuries. (We have two pages describing laser beam hazards, and the possible effects and injuries; see Don’t aim at head & eyes, and If you are hit by a laser.)

Riots and demonstrations: Beginning in the late 2000’s, some protesters have taken to using lasers against security forces; a sample list is here. Tactics include distracting and temporarily flashblinding the police officers. Because lasers are used at close range and are aimed at eyes, in a confrontational situation there is more potential for serious or permanent eye injury. As of July 2016, we are not aware of any claimed or actual injuries as a result of protest use.

Why do people misuse laser pointers?

Regarding aiming at aircraft, a review of arrests and convictions shows that there are two general types of misuse.

  • One is misuse by the general public, who are “playing around” with their lasers. Many ordinary citizens who were arrested have said that they did not realize the hazard. Often, aiming towards aircraft is done because of a visual illusion where a laser beam can seem to end so it looks as if it cannot touch an aircraft. Also, users may think that the beam won’t be seen by the pilots: it is “under” or “behind” the aircraft. Finally, even if the beam is aimed at the cockpit, users may think the beam makes a tiny dot of light on the windscreen just like when they play with their cat or highlight a PowerPoint slide. They don’t realize that over hundreds of feet, a laser beam spreads to become a 2-3 foot “blob” of light that blocks pilots’ vision.

  • The other type of misuse is by antisocial or criminal persons. They may not like police, or the noise of airplanes and helicopters. (For example, a man in Orlando hit aircraft over 23 times in a three-month period; he had previously filed 500+ noise complaints with the airport.) They may already be involved with illegal activity such as possessing drugs or being in a stolen vehicle. In a few cases, the laser may be deliberately used in order to interfere with a police helicopter’s crime-fighting activities.

User education is vital

A good way to improve laser/aircraft safety is user education. Media can help by reminding laser owners that they should NEVER point at or near an aircraft, or other vehicle, or a person’s head.

Incidents can be reduced if users know that (1) a laser pointer beam can definitely reach aircraft, (2) at a distance, the beam spreads so much that it can distract or flashblind a pilot, and (3) aiming at aircraft is illegal and many people have been arrested and jailed. It is very helpful if media stories make these points clear. For example, one reason for the 3% decrease in the number of FAA-reported incidents in 2012, compared with 2011, may be the increased publicity given to laser pointer prosecutions and jail sentences. Also, as awareness increases, the legal excuse that “I didn’t know it was dangerous” becomes less valid.

Other ways to improve safety

User education is important, but it is not the only solution. For various reasons, there is no single magic solution (“Warning labels!”, “Pilot goggles!”, “Banning pointers!”). To reduce incidents and provide real aviation safety, a multi-pronged approach is necessary. You can read more about various ideas to improve safety on the How to reduce incidents webpages.

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This diagram shows various ways to help reduce laser pointer incidents. Click to enlarge.

If you are interested in legislative and regulatory solutions, see our webpage If you are writing a laser law.

Laser incidents, statistics and laws

LaserPointerSafety.com has three news webpages which cover aviation-related incidents, non-aviation incidents, and all other news. For example, we have the latest statistics about aviation incident numbers, and coverage of newly-proposed laser laws from the U.S. and other countries. (Separate pages list existing international and U.S. laws.)

You can also click on the blue links at the left-hand side of a news page to find specific categories of news items such as aviation-related arrests, non-aviation arrests, news from locations such as the U.S. or California, and many other classifications.

We have a separate page listing the sentences given to persons for laser misuse. This is a kind of “rogue’s gallery” that shows how seriously officials take these incidents.

Other information

General questions are in our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) webpage. A few laser enthusiasts seem to doubt that the aviation problem is real, so we have made a special FAQ for doubters webpage.

Finally, if you have questions or concerns that are not addressed by the FAQs or our many other webpages, please feel free to contact us using the link at the bottom of this webpage.

Camera caution for TV and press news crews

Be very cautious if you aim a laser pointer beam directly into the lens of a video or still camera. While many camera operators have done this using low-powered consumer laser pointers with no ill effect, it is possible for a camera sensor (CCD or CMOS) to be permanently damaged by too-bright laser light. This can cause dark spots, or the loss of one or more rows of sensors.

Still camera sensor damaged by multiple direct beams at various laser shows. Note that this does NOT represent how a human eye’s vision might be damaged in a consumer laser incident. Photo of an HP Photosmart 945 5 megapixel camera courtesy Alja
ΕΎ Ogrin. Click for larger view.

In a very general sense, camera damage is similar to how the human eye can be damaged if overloaded by too-bright laser light staying in one area of the retina for too long. However, sensors vary widely in how susceptible they are to being damaged. Informally we have found that camera sensors are much more sensitive than the eye, although we are not aware of any scientific study. So, just because a particular camera sensor may be damaged by a laser pointer, does not necessarily mean that a human eye having the same exposure at the same distance would be injured.

It is possible to aim a laser directly into a camera lens if you take precautions. Standard laser pointers in the 1 mW to 5 mW range probably will not cause problems, especially if you keep the beam moving. For more powerful pointers, put the camera tens or hundreds of feet from the laser source. The beam’s intensity will be spread out so the chance of damage is much smaller. (At long distances, this also more accurately depicts the large “blob” light source when an aircraft is illuminated by a laser that is many hundreds or thousands of feet away.) Finally, consider using an inexpensive consumer camera such as a GoPro. If there should be any damage, the replacement cost would be minimal.

For more information, ILDA has a webpage with basic information about protecting cameras from laser damage.

Media-specific issues (inaccuracies which are often misreported)

Laser beam hazards are much different at aircraft distances

Sometimes a reporter will show a thin laser beam burning or popping something close to the laser. But a laser beam at aircraft distances is much wider (on the order of a foot or two). Because the light is so spread out, it could not burn materials or pop a balloon. Instead, the primary threat to pilots is a laser being a relatively wide light that can distract, can obscure vision (“glare”) or can temporarily flashblind a pilot.

Therefore, it is not accurate or fair to show a thin beam close up, without making it clear that the same beam at the aircraft is much wider (like a flashlight) and much less powerful (it could not burn things or pop balloons like it can up close).

This demonstration above is inaccurate. A reporter stands just a few feet from a helicopter, and aims it through the windscreen at the camera. Because he is so close, the beam is a thin red line as he moves the laser around. As you see, the small diameter does not obscure vision. But in a real in-flight illumination, the laser beam spreads to many inches or feet in diameter, as shown below:

Why pilot reports of injuries may not be accurate

It is very difficult for consumer-grade pointers and handheld lasers to cause eye injuries at aircraft distances. The beam is spread out (thus dramatically lowering the irradiance or “amount of power entering the eye”), the beam is hard to keep on a far-away target (heat cannot build up), and the pilot can blink or look away (an uncooperative target). For these reasons, many laser safety experts are skeptical of pilot injury reports.

One of FAA’s top experts said in October 2011 that there have been no documented permanent eye injuries in the over 10,000 incidents reported to FAA at that time. (See the U.S. laser/aircraft statistics news item for the latest figures.) Similarly, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority stated in April 2012 that “So far, there have been no documented cases anywhere in the UK where civil aircrew have suffered permanent eye damage.” As of July 1 2016, there have been no documented permanent eye injuries from any of the over 42,000 laser incidents reported to the U.S. FAA and U.K. CAA. A 2016 report by three top U.K. laser experts explains why this is the case.

Scientists know how much laser power is needed to damage the retina. Almost always, the laser exposure at the pilot’s location is well under the required power.

The only eye structure that can be damaged by consumer-grade pointers and handheld lasers is the retina. This is where visible light is absorbed. So the first question is “Was there retinal damage?” The next question is whether the damage is new (caused by the laser) or is due to a pre-existing bright light exposure. (One pilot reported a laser injury but it turned out to be sunburn from a few weeks earlier). In addition, minor retinal damage often is repaired by the eye in the same way that a small cut or burn on the skin can heal with no adverse impact. So another question is “Is the damage permanent?”

Pilots have reported headaches, corneal scratches and other maladies which cannot be directly caused by laser pointers. Certainly pilots should not have laser light aimed into their eyes, and if they do have secondary maladies this is unfortunate. But having a headache, or rubbing one’s eyes after an exposure is very different from claiming severe or permanent eye (retinal) damage from a laser. Be careful in your reporting to differentiate these.

Again, we are not saying that it is OK to aim lasers at pilots, or that pilots are not justifiably upset when they get flashed. Certainly, vision-blocking and distracting lasers are a genuine hazard to safe flight. But we are saying that what pilots fear most -- permanent eye damage -- is simply not true as of mid-March 2015, at least for commercial pilots in the U.S. If military pilots have been injured in a war zone or conflict area, this information would probably be classified.

For more information on how lasers can damage eyes, see the page Don’t aim at head and eyes and If you are hit by a laser.

“Illegal laser pointers”

Often you will hear about “illegal laser pointers.” Technically, this means the manufacturer or seller did something illegal. It is NOT illegal for a person to own a laser, of any power, under U.S. federal law (there are exceptions in a few states and localities).

More specifically, lasers above 5 milliwatts (5 mW) are not supposed to be marketed or sold for pointing purposes. This is why Internet sites often sell higher powered lasers for burning, balloon-popping or other non-pointing uses. But if someone buys a laser over 5 mW, there is no federal law against possession or use.

For more information, we have a description and analysis of FDA authority over laser pointers and handheld lasers, and a list of some state and local laws which may make possession illegal in certain cases such as that of minors.