Some Laser Pointers, a Risk to Civil Aviation

Despite what most of us know about external risks to aircraft, there appear to be other risks to civil aviation we should know and be concerned about. Most airplane passengers only reluctantly comply with often repeated request to turn off cell phones which may create electromagnetic interference with aircraft avionics. A few years ago we awoke to the reality of bird strikes as a very real safety risk to the commercial flights. There are other sinister threats or terrorist plots from shoe to underwear bombers to parcel bombs. For a brief while after 9/11 much attention was also paid to the laser guided shoulder-fired SAMs that could be used to bring down low-flying commercial aircrafts. Because SAMs could be acquired cheap on a bourgeoning global black market for these weapons; they were the subject of intense international arms control (mass destruction of stockpiles) and non-proliferation agreements.

A NYT article recently shed light on another risk to civil aviation, equally sinister for its intended consequences, but alarming due to its widespread, mostly benign use in everyday life. Some deranged individuals have taken to directing laser pointers to commercial aircraft’s darken cockpits, which can disorient or temporarily blind a pilot during critical landing and takeoff phases. These devices have also been aimed at helicopters (especially police air patrol units), which can compromise the safety of people on board as well as on the ground if the pilot lost control of the aircraft. In the US the authorities (FAA and FDA) are well aware of the problem and as the article points out, measures are already in place to regulate distribution and sale of powerful laser pointer devices, especially Class 4 lasers. But what if anything would be done elsewhere around the world to keep an individual with ill intent from directing their laser pointers at low-flying aircrafts from densely populated areas where detection can’t be assured. Perhaps Class 4 lasers and other such devices should be included in the list of Directed Energy (non-lethal) Weapons, which are subject to international enforcement under the CCWC as adopted in 1995 in Vienna.

Laser pointers and other similar devices are ubiquitous, but as laser technology becomes cheaper, more powerful devices would be available on the world’s mostly unregulated legit and illegitimate markets. I estimate more abuses of this technology would proliferate to the detriment of public safety. For that reason I’ll be keeping close attention on developments.

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