A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use

What should be done about laser pointers?

A note from the website’s editor: Since founding this website in 2008, I have tried not to make personal recommendations regarding laser pointer safety. My main goal is to present facts and to let the reader draw their own conclusions.

However, as of mid-February 2016, I would like to provide my personal suggestions on how to reduce the number and severity of laser pointer incidents. This is partially because in 2015 the number of incidents reported to U.S. FAA doubled, after remaining steady for four years. It is also partially due to the Feb 14 2016 incident where a Virgin Atlantic flight diverted back to its takeoff airport — the first known case of a commercial aircraft not completing its flight due to laser interference.

These are my major recommendations to help reduce laser incidents and injuries. They are listed in order of importance. Details are below.

     1: Mandatory pilot education and training
     2: Require labels and information for laser users
         2A: Implement a more informative “Laser Safety Facts” label
     3: Restrict sales of high-powered consumer handheld lasers (but do not think this will significantly lower the rate of incidents, as Australia’s experience shows)
     4: Limited use by pilots of Laser Glare Protection eyewear
     5: Continue prosecution of laser offenders (but do not think this will significantly lower the rate of incidents, as 2015 shows)

Recommendation #1: Mandatory pilot education and training

Pilots should be required to have education and training in how to recognize and recover from a laser pointer incident. In the U.S., this should be mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

However, note that it is not necessary to wait for FAA. It could be implemented unilaterally by airlines. Also, pilot groups such as the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) could provide information to their members. Individual pilots can help themselves by reading information put out by FAA, CAA, ALPA, BALPA and other informed groups. (We have our own summary here.)

Pilot education and training would be the single most effective public safety improvement. That’s because pilots are the “last link” in the safety chain.

No one should think that a ban on laser sales and/or possession will magically stop the problem. Unfortunately, laser pointer misuse will still occur.

This chart shows Australia’s experience. In mid-2008, government banned both the sale and the possession of laser pointers above 1 milliwatt. Yet the number of pilots reporting illuminations actually rose for the next four years. The numbers have since decreased somewhat, but as of 2015 in Australia there are almost 4 times the number of illuminations as before pointers were banned.

Pic 2016-03-02 at 6.37.11 PM

A comparison of Australia’s numbers to the U.S. incident rate shows that Australia’s rate tracks the U.S. up until 2015, when the U.S. rate greatly increases. The conclusion is that a ban on laser pointers, by itself, probably will not significantly bring down the number of laser incidents — at least not for many years. This is not to say it shouldn’t be considered. But a ban shouldn’t be relied on as the only way to reduce the number and severity of laser incidents.

Plus, even if laser pointer sales could be completely banned, there would still ways for people with malicious intent to make or get higher-powered lasers. For example, it would be trivial to obtain a high-powered laser that is portable, or to make it portable.

So it is essential that pilots know what to do if lased, and that they experience what a laser incident is like.

Fortunately, a 2003 FAA study showed that pilots exposed to bright laser flashes in a simulator were “inoculated” after one or two flashes. They learned how bad the flashes could be — and that they would not get worse.

  • It is not necessary to use laser light in the simulator. Tests with pilots in a cockpit who were first exposed to laser light, and then to the light from an inexpensive LED flashlight, showed that the flashlight can adequately simulate what the pilots experienced. More information is on the page How to safely simulate a laser strike.

  • Similarly, it may not be necessary to use an expensive, full-motion simulator. One company, Lamda Guard, has experimented with a virtual reality aircraft simulator costing about $1000, so pilots can experience what a laser exposure is like. Again, a study would need to verify how much realism is needed — if this can be done relatively inexpensively.

Pilots also need to be educated so they will not panic or unduly worry. The chance of even a small retinal injury is minuscule, and the chance of severe injury is essentially impossible from consumer handheld lasers at aviation distances. After 40,000 laser/aircraft incidents in the U.S. and U.K. since 2004, there have been no confirmed, documented permanent eye injuries. (There have been some small injuries that healed, and there have been some corneal injuries caused not by laser light but by the pilot mistakenly rubbing his or her eye too hard.)

Finally, it should be noted that most experts agree that a laser illumination on its own would not be sufficient to cause an accident. There would have to be some other factor, such as a tricky landing, or a flash during some other type of emergency. For example, imagine if someone on the Hudson River shore aimed a laser pointer at Capt. Sullenberger as he tried to land his USAir flight in the river, in January 2009. That would likely have turned the successful “Miracle on the Hudson” into a disaster.

Recommendation #2: Require labels and information for laser users

Governments should require pointers and handheld lasers to include a warning against aiming at aircraft. Language that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently suggests is “CAUTION - LASER LIGHT IS BRIGHT AND BLINDING - DO NOT SHINE AT AIRCRAFT OR VEHICLES AT ANY DISTANCE.”

Even a label with a shorter message such as “DO NOT AIM AT OR NEAR AIRCRAFT” could help.

(It may be useful to add that aiming at aircraft and vehicles is illegal. There needs to be a balance between a short simple message, and enough information to cause a person to actually heed the warning statement.)

In addition to labeling on the laser itself, more detailed information should be required in the user manual or a separate sheet. Some sample information sheets are here.

In the U.S., the FDA does not have the authority to warn against a bright light hazard. The agency does have regulatory authority to warn of health hazards to eye or skin — but not vision interference hazards. Therefore, a bill should be introduced in the U.S. Congress, specifically authorizing FDA to require an aviation warning label on pointers and handheld lasers, and also additional details in the user manual or on a separate sheet.

One reason for having such a label is the remarkable number of people who did not realize the hazard of aiming a laser at an aircraft, or that it is illegal. Even though many people will not read labels, it seems absurd not to at least give some warning.

In addition, it becomes easier to prosecute someone for knowingly aiming a laser at an aircraft, if the laser itself carries a warning against doing so.

Recommendation #2A: Implement a more informative label

It would be best to go beyond adding just an aviation warning, and to overhaul the FDA-mandated laser warning label. This will help with another growing problem — consumer laser eye injuries.

The current label was designed for technical users in a lab or in industry, not for relatively unsophisticated ordinary citizens.

Specifically, I recommend adoption of the proposed Laser Safety Facts label or something similar. This is basically a laser version of the FDA’s current Nutrition labels and Drug Facts labels. A Laser Safety Facts label would include more information on laser hazards, and provides guidance for safe use. A website and QR code is also proposed, where those who need full information — for example, someone who may have been injured by a laser — can easily find detailed answers.

This proposal is well-thought out and is “ready to go”. FDA would only need authority to implement this, just as they currently implement the Nutrition and the Drug Facts labels. Much more information is on the About Laser Safety Facts webpage.

IEC 3B_QR under - aircraft 300w
This is a sample of the Laser Safety Facts label as it might appear on a high-powered Class 3B laser. The top portion, and “Avoid exposure to beam” text, are the same as an international standard laser warning label already used in countries outside the U.S. and which is legal for U.S. labeling. This label also adds a warning not to aim at aircraft, plus a website URL and QR code.

Click on the label to go to the webpage that is on the label’s URL and QR code (e.g., a webpage with more information about Class 3B lasers).

Recommendation #3: Restrictions on high-powered consumer handheld lasers

Reluctantly, over the past decade I have now come to the conclusion that there should be restrictions on consumer laser pointer and handheld sales. This was a very difficult decision. It was tipped by the doubling in U.S. incidents in 2015. Since we are not succeeding in educating laser pointer owners, we need to try a different and more severe tack.

(Even if, as I fear, doing so will not substantially lower the laser incident rate, at least — like Prohibition — it would have been tried. Those who advocate a ban or restrictions would have had their chance. And if the incident rate does not lower, then authorities would be forced to look towards other potential solutions, such as mandatory pilot training.)

There are a number of different approaches to a ban, licensing and/or restrictions. If I had to make a decision today, here is what I would propose. Note that these steps are for the U.S.; other countries may have different laws and challenges.

     1) Reducing the power of a laser pointer from 5 mW to 1 mW. This puts the U.S. in line with other countries such as the U.K. and Australia. Lowered visibility should not be a problem. When the 5 mW limit was set, most pointers were red. Now, with the widespread use of green diodes, the visibility of a green 1 mW pointer is roughly equal to that of a red 5 mW pointer. (I will admit that this is a relatively minor change. There is not a huge difference between 1 and 5 mW pointers in terms of aviation or eye hazards. It is perhaps more symbolic than significant.)

     2) Restricting the sale of consumer handheld lasers over 1 mW (e.g., lasers that are more powerful than pointers). A person wanting to buy one would need to apply for a permit or license. This could be standardized with a form stating the need, and perhaps a power limit for each broad type of need. For example, a laser used to point out stars by astronomy hobbyists should be capped at, say, 10 mW.

     3) To cover costs, there would be a fee tor the permit or license. This could be a flat fee for processing — maybe $25 or $50 — and then an additional per-milliwatt fee, such as $1 or $5 per milliwatt. The license fee for a 10 mW laser, therefore would cost between $35 to $100. The license fee for a more powerful laser, such as a 500 milliwatt Class 4 laser would be between $525 and $2,550. If a person really wants a powerful handheld laser, and gives a reasonable justification, they could get one. But obviously the higher costs would discourage all but the most dedicated persons.

I should state here, incidentally, that I have not seen a good reason for an ordinary citizen to have a handheld laser over, say, 10 mW. Perhaps there are some specialized uses; if so, a licensing system can accommodate this. Also, for indoor private use such as a hobbyist laser show using non-portable, non-handheld lasers, there should be no restrictions. These have not proven to be a problem. The issue is that too many people are using higher-powered handheld lasers outdoors, with ignorance or malice against aircraft.

Another advantage of restricted sales is to help reduce injuries on the ground, when a person aims a laser beam into their own eye or someone close to them. Injuries from these are rare, especially compared to other ways that ordinary objects can injure people. But reports of such incidents and injuries have been rising since 2015. One way to slow this rise is to make it harder for regular people to obtain lasers over 1 mW.

At this time (early 2016) I would not make possession illegal. I have a feeling that it is new owners, more than established ones, who are more likely to aim at aircraft. Additional studies on persons arrested should be done to see if there is a link between time-of-purchase, and time-of-illegal-use. (One hobbyist had an idea: Treat high-powered lasers like switchblades or other illegal knives, where possession in public is illegal. He suggested that if you have high-powered lasers in your own home for private use, no one should take them away. But if they are seen in public, the police or others should be empowered to permanently confiscate them, without any other fine or arrest.)

It is vital to note that any ban or restriction must be crafted carefully. This is to avoid unintended consequences or loopholes. To give just one example, there should not be a way to sell kits of laser diodes plus housings so a person could easily make their own battery-powered handheld. Also, there may need to be restrictions on resale, such as not allowing any sale by individuals (e.g., on eBay). Again, these details need more thought and study.

(A reader made an interesting suggestion I’ll repeat here: “It should be technically possible to ‘pulse code’ each new laser pointer so that the beam encodes a traceable serial number so that ownership could be traced. Aircraft could carry a sensor that decodes and records the ID information, passing it on to Law Enforcement.”)

Recommendation #4: Limited use of Laser Glare Protection eyewear

The use of Laser Glare Protection eyewear is not recommended as routine. If laser light is reported or suspected in an area, then a pilot may wish to put on LGP eyewear that has been previously tested in the cockpit (on the ground) to ensure the LGP does not block critical indicators, displays and airport lights. First responders such as police and rescue pilots would benefit the most. This is because they may be required to fly into a potentially hazardous laser situation in order to identify a perpetrator, or to continue a rescue.

The most common color seen in FAA incidents is green, representing almost 95% of incidents each year. As of 2016 there is only one common green wavelength, 532 nanometers. Therefore, any eyewear that can reduce the intensity of 532 nm light would potentially be useful in 95% of illumination situations.

However, it is vital to note that any eyewear that can block certain laser colors will also block that same color from instrument panel lights, display screens, and airport lighting. This means that having pilots wear laser glare protection glasses at night could be more hazardous than if they experience a laser illumination. After all, it’s relatively rare for any given pilot, on any given flight, to have laser interference. But pilots always need to see their instruments.

Manufacturers of Laser Glare Protection eyewear for pilots generally want to have a narrow band of green being blocked (e.g., centered around 532 nm). This allows other greens on the instrument panel to be seen.

One potential disadvantage in the future is that laser pointers with 520 nm light will become more prevalent. LGP optimized for 532 nm would provide no real protection — and LGP optimized for both greens would have a greater problem with instrument panel visibility.

An individual pilot can purchase LGP eyewear if they wish. Also, some pilot groups such as a police department’s aviation division may want to adopt these. They should do so only after night ground testing, in the cockpit to be flown, to see whether there is any undesirable color loss in vital indicators and displays.

Recommendation #5: Continue prosecution of laser offenders

For a while, it was hoped that publicity about laser offenders, their arrests, and their convictions would help deter people from pointing at aircraft. This seemed to work from about 2011 to 2014, when the increase in incidents leveled off at about 3,500 to 4,000 per year.

But in 2015 the yearly rate nearly doubled. There was no apparent change in laser technology, sales, or prosecutions/convictions. Therefore it seems as if the publicizing of arrests was not helping to lower incidents. In fact, more study may show that publicity causes a “copycat” effect.

Based on the current evidence, I recommend that prosecutions and convictions of laser perpetrators continue. However, there is no indication that this is a significant factor in reducing the rate or increase of incidents.

It should be noted that an ordinary person, who truly did not understand the hazards, should not be jailed. But antisocial persons who deliberately target aircraft, often along with other illegal activity such as drug use or parole violations, should have harsher treatment including jail time.

Comments on Sen. Schumer’s proposals

Since August 2012, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has asked the Food and Drug Administration to restrict higher-powered handheld lasers, and to require aviation warning labels on lasers. He repeated this in March 2015 and November 2015. On February 3 2016, Schumer met with the FDA commissioner nominee, who agreed to consider having the FDA ban high-powered green pointers. (See here for a list of Schumer-related stories.)

While Sen. Schumer’s interest is appreciated, the Senator should be aware that under current FDA regulations (21 CFR 1040.10 and 1040.11), the agency does not appear to have the authority to implement his requested changes. It would be easier if the Senator introduced a bill giving FDA the necessary authority — and just as important, the funding to make any restrictions meaningful.

The FDA division responsible for laser safety, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, is underfunded in the laser regulatory areas. Many Americans feel that government should be smaller; however, for those like Sen. Schumer who want increased safety this also means increased staffing to regulate and enforce labeling requirements and sales restrictions.

Comments on other suggestions

One promising approach is to put a Laser Glare Protection film on the inside of an aircraft’s windscreen. A Canadian company, Lamda Guard, is working on this, testing it along with Airbus. Two key advantages are:

1) pilots do not have to do anything special like put on glasses to gain increased protection and
2) film on the windscreen does not interfere with pilot color identification of cockpit instruments and displays (unlike wearing green-blocking glasses).

There are a few disadvantages as well. The film may be costly — many thousands of dollars — to install in a cockpit. It would almost need to be required by national aviation authorities (e.g., FAA, CAA) in order to force airlines to spend the extra money to use the film. It requires significant testing and review to become certified as airworthy; unlike pilot glasses which can be worn or not worn at a pilot’s discretion. And it may protect only against certain wavelengths. A determined perpetrator could simply use an unusual or new wavelength, rendering the film useless.

But some help is better than none, especially when about 95% of current laser illuminations are from a single wavelength, 532 nm green. The Lamda Guard film should be evaluated for future use. But it cannot and should not be considered to be a total solution. Pilots still will need to know how to recognize and recover from any lasers whose wavelength and/or power cannot be significantly reduced by the film.

Note: All data above is as of February 15 2016.