The use of lasers is very common; they serve as valuable tools in many aspects of our lives. Lasers come in a variety of forms and are used by doctors to correct our vision, to scan barcodes, or to create brilliant light shows at amusement parks. Instructors use them to teach astronomy or highlight their presentations; construction workers use them to cast a perfectly straight line; police use them to pinpoint vehicles with radar; and we enjoy teasing our cats and dogs as they playfully chase that elusive red dot.
Most of us are accustomed to the small novelty keychain laser sold for a few dollars. This common laser emits an insignificant 5mW power beam. In recent years handheld lasers have become much more powerful, smaller, and substantially more affordable.
The popular lasers are now sold with red, green, and blue colored beams, with red touted as the hottest and green as the brightest. Many companies in China are selling the most powerful handheld lasers in the world; they can be ordered through websites with a powerful 1,000mW (one watt) power beam. One watt may not sound like much, but lasers over 500mW are Class 4, meaning they are hazards to eyes and skin. These lasers can light matches, pop balloons, and cast a beam that can efficiently paint an object from many miles away. While fun and aesthetically cool, in the wrong hands they can also be extremely dangerous.
Such powerful lasers were not a problem in the past because they were manufactured in the form of a bulky electronic box and relied on a fixed power outlet to operate. They were also unaffordable, costing thousands of dollars, and their marketing to would-be customers was primarily directed toward commercial or scientific types.
Today’s lasers are sleek and handheld. Some of the most popular are designed with features similar to the famous Star Wars light saber. Those powered by rechargeable lithium batteries now sell for under $300; they are in great demand and some manufacturers are finding it difficult to keep up with the onslaught of orders.
Safety issues for law enforcement
It is currently lawful to possess a handheld 1,000mW laser. Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates lasers, there are no current restrictions for purchase or possession, and there are no age limitations. The two primary safety issues stem from their power and their seemingly unlimited range. Because of this and the increasing market saturation, attacks on commercial aircraft and police helicopters have increased exponentially in recent years.
Directing a powerful laser into the cockpit of any type of aircraft can temporarily blind the pilot, even from many miles away. This exposure is similar to having a camera flash go off directly in your eyes. Powerful exposure also adversely affects vision for a minimum of several minutes after the exposure has ended. In laser-speak, this is referred to as “after images.” A laser attack on aircraft is a Federal felony and can carry a maximum prison sentence of twenty years and a $250,000 fine. The FAA created a formal reporting system in 2005. Reported “laserings” increased from nearly 300 in 2005 to 1,527 in 2009 and 2,836 in 2010. Despite such a harsh penalty, laser attacks on aircraft are ever increasing.
Lt. Mike Higashi (Ret.) serves as a police helicopter observer for a southern California agency. On three separate occasions, Mike and his pilot were “blasted” by a bright green laser while flying on patrol. He said it’s like being in a dark room and having a Streamlight flashed in your eyes. Such attacks force pilots to look away, and it takes time for the pilot’s eyes to readjust to the dark, which is extremely hazardous. Mike adds that even worse is when the laser hits the Plexiglas of the helicopter and refracts in all directions, flooding the cockpit with potentially blinding light.