While both the U.S. and the U.K. have laws with penalties up to five years in jail, in the States jail sentences have been imposed while fines are the norm in Britain. The U.S. also has a centralized national reporting system, which the British officials seek to emulate.
Mark Callaghan, an NPT inspector for Sussex Police, told the Express about a case in April 2014 where a laser beam was aimed at an Airbus A319 from a Travelodge near Gatwick Airport. The pilots reported that “The green laser was extremely aggressive and we suffered three or four two-second attacks directly into the cockpit causing blotchy vision, squinting, broken concentration, sore eyes.” The perpetrators were not caught.
Callaghan noted “We can find out who was in the rooms but we have no power to conduct any searches and even if there were lasers there what evidence is there to say they did it? We would like some preventative legislation. The US have got it nailed on how they deal with this.”
From the Express
From January 1 to June 30 2015, there were more than 400 laser incidents reported to CAA. Heathrow had the most incidents by count, with 48 in the first half of the year. (This is actually fewer incidents per month than last year, when there were 168 total Heathrow laser reports for all of 2014.)
By proportion of laser incidents to air traffic volume, there was a higher frequency of attacks at regional airports such as Birmingham, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle.
The British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA) on November 2015 released the results of a survey of its pilot members, showing that 50% had reported a laser/aircraft incident during the period from November 2014 to November 2015.
From the Guardian and the Express. The CAA and BALPA statistics were released along with news of a British Airways pilot who reportedly suffered severe retinal injury from a spring 2015 exposure to a “military-strength” laser.
Additionally, there were 312 laser incidents that occurred outside the U.K. to U.K. operators.
In 2014, the top four most frequent incident locations were London/Heathrow (168), Manchester International (107), Birmingham (92), and Leeds Bradford (81). London/Gatwick and Glasgow were tied for fifth place, each with 64 reported incidents.
CAA published a PDF report with more detailed figures, including a monthly breakdown of the most frequent laser incident locations in 2014, and monthly & yearly totals for 2009 through 2014, and overseas (non-U.K.) incidents occurring to U.K. operators.
From the CAA PDF report dated February 2 2015. Note: There is a discrepancy where one table lists a total of 1,440 incidents in 2014 while another lists a total of 1,442. We have used the larger figure in this story.
Additional charts are on the page listing 2014 incident statistics, and the page with 2004-2014 historical data.
In the ten weeks prior to September 26 2014, there were seven incidents of lasers being pointed at aircraft; five of these led to arrests.
News reports did not directly link the misuse to the man arrested with the 107 laser pens. It also is not known if the investigation that led to the seizure was started in response to the aircraft incidents, or was separately initiated. All flights landed safely.
One of the seized pens was said to be 650 times more powerful than normal. Given that U.K. regulations prohibit laser pointers above 1 mW, the pen was likely 650 milliwatts. This is Class 4, the most hazardous laser classification, as the beam can cause eye and even skin burns.
From the Daily Echo
The Aerolaser is made by the Delft, Netherlands company “Bird Control Group”. The handheld device uses a green laser with a range over 2500 meters (1.6 miles). The company claims that birds do not grow used to the laser, and it is safe for the animals. According to an article at the website IHS Airport360, “As a safety feature, the laser is disabled above a certain height - this prevents the beam from being shone directly at aircraft or controllers in the tower.” In addition, the operator can look through a scope so he or she knows where the beam will be directed.
Conceptual diagram of using a handheld laser around airports, from Aerolaser.com
A frame from an Aerolaser video describing use at the Southampton airport.
A frame from another Aerolaser video showing laser light scattering birds.
The company also makes an automatic, autonomous system called Aerolaser Groundflex, pictured below from the company’s website:
According to Wikipedia, “bird strikes are a significant threat to flight safety” since 35% of strikes result in damage to the aircraft, costing $400 million per year in the U.S. and up to $1.2 billion per year worldwide.
Bird Control Group also makes the Agrilaser Lite (range of 1000 meters) and the Agrilaser Handheld (range over 2000 meters), intended to keep birds away from fields and crops.
The newspaper also reported that in the 12 months between October 2012 and September 2013, there were 31 reports of aircraft being illuminated as they approached Gatwick Airport, 30 miles south of London.
Laser strikes have also increased on rescue helicopters flying out of Redhill Aerodrome, Surrey, a few miles north of Gatwick. A tactical flight officer was quoted as saying “I've had to break away from a task because of being lasered and it's not because we're trying to catch a bad guy, it's because we're trying to find people potentially in danger.... There are certain elements of society that might be trying to harm us or put us off being in a certain location.”
Police inspector Mark Callaghan told the Mirror that there have been a number of jail terms for perpetrators, but that "Hand-held lasers are easily obtained over the internet or from market stalls and street vendors abroad. The warning labels on these are misleading and they are more powerful than advertised."
From the Surrey Mirror
A video showing the “AirTerminators Super Combat Helicopters” in January 2014 at the London Toy Fair shows an operator getting a brief laser hit just below his eye. The laser is said to be Class 1; if so, such a brief exposure would not be considered harmful according to safety guidelines.
However, it is not recommended for children to play with lasers. Further, it is unknown if the laser remains operational even if the helicopter is stationary or is handheld instead of free flying.
The helicopter is in the middle top of the photo. A red line can be seen just under the operator’s eye. This is the path of the laser from an opposing helicopter as it went across his face during the video frame. This can be seen at 34 seconds into a YouTube video of the demonstration.
The Association says the lasers are too easily available, and that although it is illegal to aim a laser at an aircraft, the punishments have been too lenient: “Slaps on wrists and £150 fines are not enough.”
According to a September 29 2013 article in the Sunday Express, there were 1,570 laser incidents reported to the Civil Aviation Authority in 2012, and 1,911 in 2011. The most prominent airports cited were Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, the East Midlands, Bristol, Heathrow and Gatwick.
From the Sunday Express
The device came to public attention September 28 2013 when gadget blog Gizmodo published an article entitled Holy Crap, This Real-Life Laser Rifle Cuts Through Metal Like Nothing. The article links to TWI’s YouTube video of the laser in action.
The laser-projected image appears to be formed by a holographic diffraction grating, similar to those used in “caps” on laser pointers to make simple logos such as faces, dollar signs and other graphics:
Blaze’s inventor, Emily Brooke, put the product on Kickstarter in November 2013 and reached its funding goal within 27 days. The initial cost of a Blaze is £60 (USD $96).
A description at Kickstarter states that when Blaze is off of its bracket on the bicycle, the laser cannot be turned on, as a safety measure. The internal laser will be a “more powerful module than you’d typically find in a laser pointer”. However, because the beam is spread out by the optical element, it will be a Class 2 laser product with human access safety equivalent to a laser pointer that is less than 1 milliwatt.
She also notes that the laser is aimed down onto the road so it will not dazzle drivers.
UPDATED -- October 27 2014: Blaze is out of Kickstarter and is a product. The new website is at Blaze.cc. According to the website, as of October 2014 the company has sold 3,000 Blaze laser bike lights. The final cost is $200, shipped anywhere worldwide. The laser is a direct-diode green laser, not a DPSS. It is said to be “retina safe.”
This is roughly one-third of the 700 incidents over the same time frame that involved aircraft in or above the West Midlands. (The 480 non-laser incidents included bird strikes, emergency landings, a bomb threat, a dog on the runways and closure of an airfield because of a flying kite.)
On one occasion in July 2011, four different lasers were aimed at a police helicopter in a single incident.
The British Airline Pilots Association asked for prison sentences for persons caught aiming at aircraft, as well as regulations over the sale of high-powered lasers.”
According to West Midlands police, laser attacks on their helicopter have fallen in months prior to July 2013.
From the Birmingham Mail. See also a related LaserPointerSafety.com article on BALPA’s laser pointer suggestions.
BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan asked for a government cross-agency summit to address the problem. BALPA requested stronger regulations restricting the sale of high-powered lasers, more prosecutions, and action taken through trading standards.
He said that hotspots include airports at Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool and Heathrow.
From ITV London and ITV Granada
7,378 lasers were seized, along with 8,780 parts from which lasers could be assembled. It was estimated that the company sold over 35,000 laser pointers from 2009-2011, generating income of over £1,000,000 (USD $1,600,000).
Techyun Hii, 33, pleaded guilty to four charges of laser pointer violations and a fifth charge of unsafe power chargers. He was sentenced to a 180 day jail term suspended for 18 months, and to 300 hours of community service. The lasers were later incinerated in a hospital’s furnace.
Lead author John O’Hagan detailed the HPA’s findings in a paper presented at the March 2013 International Laser Safety Conference in Orlando. The case had previously been reported by LaserPointerSafety.com.
From the Yorkshire Evening Post
33-year-old Techyun Hii ran Sky Laser Pointers from his home in Ribbleton, a suburb of Preston, Lancashire. In 2011, Lancashire Trading Standards officials found he had lasers that were up to 150 milliwatts, substantially over the U.K. limit of 1 milliwatts for laser pens sold to the public through an eBay store. Three packages were being sent to Greece, just before the Greek riots. He had been warned twice before about U.K. laws and his obligations.
In April 2012, investigators placed a test purchase which led to Hii’s arrest. He pleaded guilty to five counts of selling illegal goods, and will be sentenced July 4 2012.
From the Lancashire Evening Post
UPDATED November 25 2012: Hii was sentenced to a 180 day jail term, suspended for 18 months and was ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work. The lasers sere destroyed by burning them in a hospital’s furnace. From the Lancashire Evening Post.
UPDATED March 22 2013: The case was the subject of a paper in the Proceedings of the 2013 International Laser Safety Conference, “Laser Product Assessment for Lancashire County Council Trading Standards Service” by John O’Hagan, Michael Higlett and Marina Khazova, pp. 181-188. A summary of the paper is here at LaserPointerSafety.com.
Police warned of the hazards of endangering pilots and drivers, and noted that a violation could result in being sentenced to prison for life.
From This Is Derbyshire and the Loughborough Echo
Below are highlights from the document, which gives some background information and statistics, and then describes how affected crew should prepare for and react to a laser attack. (Emphasis in bold added by LaserPointerSafety.com.)
The ALESA card is available in hard copy, and can also be downloaded from CAA’s website. If downloaded, the Amsler Grid on the first page should be printed so it is 10 x 10 cm.
When staring at the dot in the center of the grid, if the lines appear distorted or there are blank or faded areas, there may be a problem. The person is encouraged to remove themselves from aviation-related duties such as flying or air traffic control, and to see an eye specialist.
The second page has a flowchart of exposure conditions leading either to a “1” meaning unlikely eye damage or a “2” meaning eye damage possibility. If the person scores a “2”, the flowchart suggests they see an eye specialist.
From PilotWeb and the CAA ALESA webpage. The CAA press release about ALESA is here.
- U.S. airports had 9,079,000 flights in 2011, with 3,591 laser incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration. This is a rate of one U.S. laser incident for every 2,528 flights. Said another way, this is 0.40 incidents per 1,000 flights.
- U.K. airports had 2,152,787 flights in 2011, with 1,909 laser incidents reported to the Civil Aviation Authority. This is a rate of one U.K. laser incident for every 1,128 flights. Said another way, this is 0.89 incidents per 1,000 flights.
The ratio of U.K. to U.S. rates is 2.24, meaning that the U.K. had more than twice the number of laser incidents than the U.S., when adjusted for the number of flights. (Important note: These figures do NOT mean that commercial aircraft are targeted at the rates indicated. Many laser incidents involve police helicopters. The analysis is simply meant to compare the two countries’ rates of laser misuse against aircraft of all types.)
It should also be noted that there could be many underlying factors affecting the precise numbers. For example, it is not known if the U.S. counts laser incidents in the same way as the U.K.
However, the figures do indicate that the U.K. rate of laser incidents appears to be significantly higher -- roughly twice the U.S. rate, based on the number of flights.
From an analysis by LaserPointerSafety.com, March 22 2012.
Updated May 27 2012 to correct a math error and make clear that it is the United Kingdom which has a higher rate of laser incidents (e.g., more incidents per 1000 flights). Our thanks to Brian Turner for pointing out this error.
Methodology: We define a “flight” as a takeoff plus a landing. US flight figures are from the Airline Activity “departures” statistic from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It is assumed that each flight which departs also lands, so the data is accurate for “flights” as we have defined it. UK flight figures are from totaling column G, Total ATMs, from “Table 4, 1 Air Transport Movements 2011” found on the CAA UK Airport Statistics 2011 page. A UK “movement” is one takeoff plus one landing, so this is the same as our “flights” definition.
While the flight statistics compare only airline (US) and air transport (UK) flights, and do not include law enforcement flights, we believe this is a valid “apples to apples” comparison of how many more flights take place in the U.S. than in the U.K. A previous LaserPointerSafety.com analysis showed that law enforcement flights are less than 1% of the total flights from U.S. airports. Inclusion of law enforcement flight numbers would not significantly change the ratio of U.S.-to-U.K. flights.
In 2011, a law was introduced by MP Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West), to make it a criminal offense to shine a laser into an aircraft cockpit.
According the Civil Aviation Authority, there were 1,909 laser incidents in the U.K. in 2011, compared with three in 2008. [Note from LaserPointerSafety.com: The 2008 statistic is almost certainly incorrect. A previous LaserPointerSafety.com news item from BBC News reported 27 lasers were used against commercial aircraft in 2007, and there were 80 cases from January through September 2008.]
From the Bradford Telegraph and Argus
From the Croydon Guardian
Figures for 2010 showed about 100 laser pen attacks on flights taking off or landing at the Yeadon-based airport. Figures from January 2011 through October 2011 showed 80 such attacks, indicating that the 2011 total would be similar to 2010.
A CAA spokesperson said laser pen misuse in Britain was not letting up in 2011: “The people who are carrying out these attacks are either still ignorant of the dangers high-powered lasers present to the safe operation of an aircraft, or they simply do not care.”
Mulholland said “a blanket ban on laser pointers is not the way forward because of the effect it would have on legitimate users. Something does, however, need to be done to address this serious ongoing issue.”
From the Bradford Telegraph and Argus
Concept of the rifle, from the Daily Mail
The developer is Photonic Security Systems, which also markets the rifle as a pirate deterrent. The Telegraph says that similar devices have been used in Afghanistan by NATO-led International Security Assistance Force troops.
PSS managing director Paul Kerr told the International Business Times "The very purpose of this technology is to be non-damaging … If someone is prepared to just stand there and stare down the barrel at this, which would be incredibly uncomfortable, then they are definitely a threat.” He said that he has often been exposed to the laser: "The quality and safety of the device is paramount and I know that first hand because I have been the guinea pig many times. I know what it is like and I know how effective it can be."
Author and activist Cory Doctorow points out that “the UK is a signatory on the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons … this weapon wouldn’t run afoul of international law if it (merely) reduced your vision to the point where you were impaired but not legally blind, permanently.” Doctorow also says “Twitter wags are already predicting a resurgence of mirrorshades [reflective sunglasses] among protesters.”
From the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the International Business Times and BoingBoing. See related story on BAE Systems anti-pirate dazzler.
Could a UFO with green lights have caused this crack?
It follows a report to the Halstead Gazette and a UFO website that a resident saw green lights rotating above her in Nether Court on Friday and left a large crack in the ground.
The frightened woman's daughter, who would only be identified as Nel, called Essex Police after the 7pm incident to check if it was the force helicopter. A police spokesman said it was not the helicopter but could have been laser pens.
But Nel is adamant it was not laser pens, and has since carried out internet research suggesting similar beams have been seen in diverse places such as Cornwall, Mexico, Nova Scotia and China.
From the Halstead Gazette on October 28 2011. Also, see this post at UK UFO Sightings; scroll down for the comment from Nel.
From The Independent and the Daily Mail
From BBC News
A spokesperson pledged to “deal robustly with any incident involving laser light whether it is an assault on another member of the public or a device being pointed at a vehicle. Laser pen owners should also be aware that Surrey Police’s collision investigation unit can pursue a manslaughter charge if it is found that a fatal or life changing injury collision is due to the use of a laser light. All offences have a power of arrest and could result in a term of imprisonment.”
Police are especially concerned about aircraft illuminations in East Surrey, near Gatwick Airport.
From Elmbridge Today, BBC News, and Redhill and Reigate Life. A list of laser pen offences, compiled by the Surrey police, is here.
Roy Clarke, BAE Systems capability technology lead for laser photonic systems, said: “The effect is similar to when a fighter pilot attacks from the direction of the sun. The glare from the laser is intense enough to make it impossible to aim weapons like AK47s or RPGs, but doesn’t have a permanent effect.”
From the BAE Systems press release.
Some of the more interesting quotes:
- Pilot Kevin Medlock: "It's so brilliant, it takes away part of your vision for a few minutes at least. We fly an aircraft, 148 passengers, making an approach to landing at 170 miles per hour. The consequences of someone shining a laser in my eyes at that stage of flight isn't worth bearing the consequences." Medlock was hit by laser beams twice in one month.
- "What's worrying experts is the rate at which the problem is growing:" 29 U.K. attacks in 2007, 206 attacks in 2008, and 461 in 2009 (through September).
- (video of teen walking into court) "This man said he was trying to see how far his laser could reach. Dean Bottomley was sent to jail."
- Captain Bob Jones, U.K. Civil Aviation Authority: "We're trying to raise the awareness of the general public, rather than worry or frighten them."
From BBC News
1: Police helicopter is targeted by laser pointer on the ground. 2: Helicopter crew use Laser Event Recorder to locate pointer via GPS, and record its wavelength. 3: GPS details enable helicopter’s thermal (infrared) camera to find suspect, and send police patrol on the ground to arrest the person.
In addition, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is planning new laws prohibiting shining a laser at an aircraft. Currently, prosecutors have to prove that the laser user “recklessly or negligently endangered an aircraft”.”
BBC quotes Bob Jones, head of flight operations at the CAA: “"To those individuals targeting aircraft with laser devices the message is clear -- don't. You will be caught and you will be prosecuted and you could spend up to five years in prison. These things are not toys, they pose a serious risk to all flight safety."
Many more details, including photos and a video of a helicopter finding a laser perpetrator, are at the BBC News website.
The pilot, who was over Stockport at the time, was temporarily blinded. Unable to read his instruments, he had to make dangerous emergency manoeuvres.
This case highlights a growing concern about the inappropriate use of more powerful green laser pens or pointers.
Britain's largest pilots union BALPA has recently warned of a major air disaster unless action is taken.
The move follows a BBC investigation which found some of these potentially dangerous products were being sold irresponsibly by individual traders.