Are laser pointers our newest threat

Years ago children at summer camp were cautioned never to shine their flashlights straight up because it could blind pilots flying overhead and cause them to crash.

These days pilot blindness is a very real possibility because of the misuse of laser pointers. In recent weeks there have been a number of incidents where people have misused green lasers in this fashion, so much so that Noah Acres, an Oregon businessman who sells Jasper Advanced Lasers, found himself talking to members of the anti-terrorism task force.

Acres said he was surprised when the task force contacted him.

“They were under the assumption that an organized effort had been launched to use the lasers to bring down airplanes, which isn’t true, I don’t think,” he said. “In one case it was just some guy in New Jersey using the laser to point at things in the night sky, in this case airplanes.”

“Lasers are not designed to blind pilots,” Acres continued. “On our web page, and in the documentation that comes with the laser, there are warnings not to shine it at people or moving vehicles. The power of a Jasper laser is less than five milliwatts, which makes it 20,000 times less powerful than your standard 100-watt light bulb, but it is a concentrated beam of light, so it projects a long way.”

Theoretically, says Acres, a beam can project 25,000 feet.

“Of course, it gets dimmer the farther out you go,” he adds. “The danger of it blinding a pilot is not very great, but it certainly is disruptive.”

The lasers sell for $121. According to Acres, they are used as pointers, for the most part.

“I would guess that 65% of them are used by amateur astronomers to point out stars in the night sky,” he said. “Business people and teachers also use them in presentations. People in the construction industry use them to align things and sportsmen use them as aiming devices for firearms.”

Since stories about the lasers being used incorrectly hit the media, Acres says he’s seen an increase in orders, including some placed by pilots.

“Several pilots want to get them to use in emergencies, so if they are lost in the woods, for example, they can just shine it straight up so that someone will find them,” said Acres, adding that he is doubtful that a few isolated incidents of people using the lasers incorrectly will result in lasers being outlawed.

THE GOVERNMENT’S TAKE

On Jan. 12, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta announced new guidelines for pilots to report incidents of laser beams shone in their cockpits during flights. According to the guidelines, pilots are to notify air traffic control about the location of the laser. ATC will in turn notify local law enforcement so that the laser operator can be apprehended and prosecuted.

As this issue was going to press, there had been more than 30 incidents of pranksters pointing lasers at aircraft.

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