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Federal rules for outdoor laser use in the U.S. (FAA authority over airspace)

Although LaserPointerSafety.com is primarily about consumer laser pointers, this page has information for all outdoor laser users in the United States, including large-scale operations such as observatory guide stars, satellite ranging and communications, and LIDAR.

There are no Federal regulations preventing lasers from being used outdoors in airspace*, except for these two conditions:
  • The beam must not be aimed at or near aircraft. Various Federal criminal and civil laws can be applied to prosecute persons who violate this. In addition, state and local laws are often applied to violators. This page cannot go into all the details (example: establishing intent) and the occasional exceptions (example: exposure below the limits in an FAA flight zone). The simplest rule is to simply not aim at aircraft.
  • There are three laser uses that must have advance review and “approval” from FAA; these three uses are described below.

FAA jurisdiction

The Federal Aviation Administration does not have any jurisdiction over laser users. This means they cannot directly regulate laser use in airspace. The most they can do is ask laser users to notify them of their outdoor operations. (The Food and Drug Administration does give FAA indirect control over the three laser uses described below.)

The FAA does ask nicely. In FAA Advisory Circular 70-1 they state “Any person/proponent who plans to conduct laser operations in the navigable airspace should file notice with the FAA.” The operative word is “should”. This is not a governmental requirement or law in which case “must” would be used. As noted below, many companies and organizations wanting to be good citizens and to reduce any potential liability may choose to have internal requirements that all laser operations must be reviewed by the FAA with no objections.

(If you are filling out the forms in Advisory Circular 70-1, see the page Corrections and advice for FAA AC 70-1.)

FAA evaluation of proposed outdoor laser operations

FAA has established guidelines for outdoor laser use, in FAA Form 7400.2, Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters, Part 6, Chapter 29, “Outdoor Laser Operations”.

If you are going to use lasers outdoors, FAA requests reports filed at least 30 days in advance of the laser usage, detailing the laser power, location with reference to local airports, control measures used, etc. The filing is done using two forms in FAA Advisory Circular 70-1, “Outdoor Laser Operations”. The first form, “Notice of Proposed Laser Operations”, is filled out once for a given laser location. The second form, “Laser Configuration Worksheet”, is filled out once for each laser at the location. The form should be submitted at least 30 days in advance of the proposed laser use. On the form, the laser “proponent” (user) describes the beam location, direction, power, wavelength and other factors. The proponent also determines various hazard distances for eye injury, and for visual effects such as flashblindness, glare and distraction.

FAA uses this information to evaluate the laser hazards as they relate to air traffic. Hazards are examined for four zones: Laser-Free Flight Zone (avoiding flashblindness), the Critical Flight Zone (avoiding glare), the Sensitive Flight Zone (avoiding distraction), and the Normal Flight Zone (laser exposure OK as long as it cannot cause eye injuries).
  • If the FAA finds safety problems with the proposed use, they issue a "letter of objection.” The laser use proponent will (hopefully) change their procedures to fix the objection(s). The proponent should consult with FAA to see if the revised usage should be resubmitted to FAA.
  • If the FAA does not have objections, they issue a "letter of non-objection." This does NOT mean that the FAA approves, certifies, endorses, etc. the proponent’s laser use. They simply are saying that they do not object. This gives them a legal “out”.

It is up to the laser user to ensure that the actual laser operation conforms to the parameters submitted to FAA.

The three types of laser uses which must be submitted to FAA

The Food and Drug Administration regulates all laser products (hardware). In addition, under 21 CFR 1040.10, FDA regulates three uses/applications of lasers:
  1. Demonstrations including laser light shows and artistic displays
  2. Surveying, leveling and alignment (SLA)
  3. Medical

Medical lasers are not normally used with an open beam outdoors so they will not be further discussed.

Demonstration lasers such as light shows, and SLA lasers are often used outdoors. For these two applications, anyone using Class 3B or 4 lasers (above 5 mW for visible wavelengths) must fill out FDA Form 3147 to obtain a “variance.” The user describes the intended use and safety features in order to get permission from FDA to vary from the regulations.

Further, if the use is outdoors, FDA will not grant the variance unless the user submits a description of their laser operations to FAA using FAA Form 7400.2 and receives a letter of non-objection from FAA. In this indirect way, demonstration/lightshow lasers and SLA lasers are the only outdoor uses of lasers that are required under Federal law to get permission in advance from FAA.

Laser users who may internally require submission to FAA

Companies and organizations such as observatories and NASA may require their outdoor laser systems to receive an FAA letter of non-objection. If so, this is an internal requirement, not a Federal law or regulation. It may be a good idea for the organization. For example, having a letter of non-objection may possibly help in case of an accidental exposure or litigation. However, FAA has no authority over outdoor laser users, except in the three types of laser uses above where FDA has authority and in effect delegates part of it to FAA.

* A broad definition of "airspace" is any location where aircraft, including helicopters, could possibly operate. This could even include the space between buildings on a city street, since police or medical helicopters may fly down the street. FAA and FDA both use this broad definition. Note that even if outdoor laser beams are terminated (stopped) by a building or other solid object, FAA may still want to evaluate the usage. For demonstraton/lightshow and SLA lasers, FDA will require FAA evaluation of the usage.

DISCLAIMER: If you need specific advice about a laser or a use, you should check with FDA/CDRH, FAA and/or a qualified, experienced laser safety consultant.