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UK: Arrest persons carrying "high-powered" laser pointers in public, says top aviation regulator

The head of the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority said that persons carrying “high-powered” laser pointers in public should be arrested even if they are not using them. He said that CAA and the British Airline Pilots Association want legislation outlawing possession of high-powered laser pens without a license. The chief executive of CAA, Andrew Haines, was speaking in late August 2016 to the Press Association about the misuse of lasers, which he considers to be a greater threat than drone near-misses, since laser misuse is “a deliberate attempt to cause harm.”

According to Haines, laser attacks have permanently damaged pilots’ vision, and it is conceivable that they could cause an aircraft crash. In 2015 there were 1,439 laser incidents reported to CAA.

Haines said there is no legitimate reason for a person to have a high-powered laser pen in public. Press reports did not indicate Haines’ definition of “high-powered”. (In the U.K., lasers used as pointers are limited to 1 milliwatt [the U.S. limit is 5 mW], so it is possible that “high-powered” would mean any handheld laser above 1 mW.)

Haines asked “Why does Joe Bloggs walking down the street need a laser that can pop a balloon at 50 miles, that can cause permanent damage to a pilot?”

The CAA chief wants new, restrictive legislation because at present, it is difficult to find laser perpetrators and to prove they had intent to endanger aviation, under the Air Navigation Order 2009.

A U.K. government spokesperson said "We take this issue very seriously and we continue to work with other Government departments, the CAA and industry to determine how best to control the sale, use and possession of laser pens. We are looking to make changes as soon as possible."

From the Daily Mail, BBC, the Mirror, and other news sources. For commentary about Haines’ statements, click the “Read More…” link below.

Commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com

While Haines may be justified in calling for greater restrictions on laser pointer use or possession, there are a few points he made which are incorrect. These are discussed below.

A laser cannot pop a balloon at 50 miles

Haines is incorrect about “a laser that can pop a balloon at 50 miles.” There is no such handheld laser, and in fact few lasers of any type outside of the military could do this. It is true that handheld lasers above roughly 100 milliwatts can pop balloons at close range — a few feet or yards — depending on the laser power, the balloon color (black absorbs heat fastest), the steadiness of the person holding the laser, etc. But it would be essentially impossible to hand-hold a laser and pop a hypothetical balloon on the outside of a hovering helicopter or a moving aircraft.

This is why permanent damage to pilots’ eyes is not considered likely by safety experts.

Haines may have been thinking about lasers’ ability to interfere with pilot vision and attention, which is considered serious by experts.

A 6,500 milliwatt green laser (6.5 watts) with a tight 1.5 milliradian beam divergence would be a distraction to a pilot at a distance of 50 miles. “Distraction” means the light would be brighter than lights on the ground; it would not adversely affect vision. There are no 6.5 watt lasers being sold to the general public at this time (mid-2016); the most powerful consumer handhelds are in the 2-3 watt range.

To actually block pilots’ vision at 50 miles would take a visible green laser with a power of 650,000 milliwatts (650 watts). We are not aware of visible lasers in that range for any scientific, medical or industrial purposes, let alone consumer handheld lasers.

Charts showing the hazard range of various lasers are on this page; see especially the information in #8, “Real-world lasers can have shorter hazard distances than ‘worst-case’ calculations.”

There have been no confirmed reports of permanent injuries to pilots from misuse

Haines also is incorrect if he is stating that pilots have had permanent eye injuries caused by the general public having lasers. There was a 2015 case where a pilot claimed a permanent injury, which was supported by BALPA in an employment action. This was written up in a medical journal. However, a later paper by three leading U.K. laser experts — including one of the medical journal authors — said that they do not believe laser targeting caused the alleged injury (which was not permanent since it healed).

In the paper, the three experts wrote that “Only one case of alleged retinal damage to a pilot resulting from laser targeting of aircraft has been reported, although not in a peer review ophthalmic journal. This case is suspect because first and foremost, the metrology and exposure geometry would suggest insufficient energy could have entered the eye to produce irreversible damage and second the fundus anomaly is in the wrong location, the wrong shape and resulted in an extremely transient reported loss of VA [visual acuity] with full recovery.”

As of mid-2016, LaserPointerSafety is not aware of any documented permanent eye injuries to pilots as a result of in-flight laser exposure in the U.S. or U.K. There may be military pilots in conflict areas who have had combat injuries; if so, this information would be classified and would not be relevant to the general public’s misuse of lasers in the U.S. or U.K.

Much laser misuse is due to ignorance and not to deliberate intent to harm

Haines called laser misuse “a deliberate intent to harm.” In fact, many incidents are caused by persons who don’t realize laser hazards. They don’t understand that laser light can reach aircraft altitudes and/or interfere with pilots’ vision. There are a number of reasons a person might aim a laser at an aircraft, without any malice. (Of course, this should not be done. But on the other hand, when lasers do not have labels warning against the practice, it is understandable that someone might not realize why the tiny dot they use to play with their cat can become a windscreen-filling sheet of light when aimed at an aircraft.)

There are no studies about the percentage of laser misuse due to ignorance, vs. due to deliberate intent to interfere or cause harm. If forced to guess, LaserPointerSafety.com would say that roughly half of incidents are from ignorance, and half from malice.