Join 3,514 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Laser pointers
December 29, 2004 2:20 PM   Subscribe

I saw this on my local news this evening. Can consumer lasers really bring down planes?
posted by Recockulous (62 comments total)

 
"Quite feasible, assuming the terrorists can get their hands on some military-grade hardware designed for exactly this purpose. The Chinese-made ZM-87 is perhaps the best known of these blinding weapons, also known as laser dazzlers."
posted by DV8 2XL at 2:27 PM on December 29, 2004


We really need to stop giving terrorists ideas.
posted by mek at 2:28 PM on December 29, 2004


Yes.
A 5mW (that's milliWatt for you who might be confused as to the power rating of consumer lasers) laser has enough power to cause permanent damage to the unprotected human eye.

All laser devices are required by law to have a warning on them stating that direct exposure into the eye is harmful.

Now, you get up above the 5mW range into some of the club lighting that you can purchase (usually up to 5W) and you can seriously hurt someone (again, direct exposure for periods longer that a few seconds). Actually, part of this is really just a "don't mess with air traffic" spook. Considering where you would have to be in order to line up a direct shot into the pilot's field of vision, it's rather unlikely that you could down a plane during landing. Take-off might be easier, but since it would require you to blind both the pilot and co-pilot of most commercial jet-liners, it's still unlikely to actually cause drastic pilot error and bring a plane down.

The real threat would be in someone getting an array of about 10 or so wide beam lasers with about 15W behind each laser and firing them in a direct line of sight shot at a cockpit during landing. That would probably permanently burn in the retina of whoever looked directly in the beam and they'd be very likely to hit something at speed upon hitting the tarmac. With 15W you can be between 1 and 2 miles away from the plane and still get a direct shot.

Of course, you're going to be hauling around about 50 car batteries in order to sustain a beam long enough to hit and burn the cockpit long enough.

Lasers.
Next thing you know they'll be doing news stories about frozen chickens and catapults.
posted by daq at 2:30 PM on December 29, 2004


Why don't the terrorists just shoot at the planes? Seems easier to me than getting military-grade lasers.
posted by Arch Stanton at 2:32 PM on December 29, 2004


please see this posted quite recently.
posted by moonbird at 2:33 PM on December 29, 2004


Having slapped enough laser warning stickers to lab doors to wallpaper my apartment I'd say, yes, could be a problem.
posted by sled at 2:34 PM on December 29, 2004


Why don't the terrorists just shoot at the planes? Seems easier to me than getting military-grade lasers.

"None of this hardware is easily obtainable, so a terrorist might be more likely to invest in a consumer-grade laser system, of the sort used in outdoor light shows."
posted by Recockulous at 2:34 PM on December 29, 2004


A 5mW (that's milliWatt for you who might be confused as to the power rating of consumer lasers) laser has enough power to cause permanent damage to the unprotected human eye.

It has the potential, but it is extremely unlikely unless you do it to yourself or you are cooperating with the person wielding the laser. It requires multi-second exposure to the retina -- something very hard to do, even if you are trying to do it to yourself. It is essentially impossible for someone else to hit the very tiny target of your (now closed down) pupil from any distance, and maintain the target for several seconds.

A 5 mW laser shone into the cockpit of an airplane from many meters (even km) away has essentially zero chance of doing any permanent damage to the eye, and only a small chance of getting a lucky hit and causing temporary blindness.

Don't believe me? Do the physics, track down the FAQ that was just posted on Slashdot.
posted by teece at 2:37 PM on December 29, 2004


Next thing you know, the terrorists will attach lasers to sharks!
posted by fandango_matt at 2:40 PM on December 29, 2004


Next thing you know they'll be doing news stories about frozen chickens and catapults.

ever seen what a frozen chicken can do to a General Electric CF6-80C2B5F turbofan?
posted by quonsar at 2:42 PM on December 29, 2004


warning law-enforcement agencies to look out for laser-wielding terrorists.
This left me with an image of a prison full of Darth Vaders. Wait, his light saber was red…run Luke!
posted by thomcatspike at 2:46 PM on December 29, 2004


Wait ... so the idea is to blind two pilots with a small pointing device from, what, hundreds of meters away? Four eyes?

Surely there must be easier ways to down a commercial airliner. Maybe we could discuss this on AskMefi, but I'd try something along hiding a device sending a frequency interfering with the control signals of the bird (although that could probably be overridden by manual controls). Any aviation engineers out there?
posted by sour cream at 2:51 PM on December 29, 2004


ever seen what a frozen chicken can do to a General Electric CF6-80C2B5F turbofan?

But did you ever see what a frozen chicken can do to a woman's pussy?

Seriously: wouldn't the distance between terrorist and plane mitigate against doing any real damage? (IANAPhysicist).
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:53 PM on December 29, 2004


Jest:

"But did you ever see what a frozen chicken can do..."

W
T
F
?
posted by SpecialK at 3:04 PM on December 29, 2004


Maybe we could discuss this on AskMefi

I really don't think that's a good idea.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:05 PM on December 29, 2004


I used to manage some apartments in the flight path of a large, international, hub airport. Lots of airline/airport employees lived there, because it was less than 5 minutes from work. This place was close enough that if you flew out on the correct runway, you could identify cars as you went overhead. Anyhow, I remember renting to this one fellow who really wanted a top floor apartment in a building at the back of the property because he liked watching planes.

This was back in that fairy tale time when terrorist attacks were something that happened in far off exotic places like the Middle East, Ireland, and maybe Germany. Pre-Waco, pre-OKCity, pre-9/11.

We can't completely secure airplanes from ground-based attacks unless we are willing to secure -- by which I mean bulldoze and fence off -- an area for several miles around every single large airport. People may be willing to tolerate invasive TSA searches, but they aren't going to sit still for land confiscation.
posted by ilsa at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2004


And Inifinite Jest, no, as a matter of fact, I haven't.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2004


Once again, Salon's Patrick Smith comes through as the voice of reason.
posted by O9scar at 3:08 PM on December 29, 2004


I wonder if duct tape and plastic sheets around the cockpit will be of any help...
posted by c13 at 3:20 PM on December 29, 2004


Why can't lasers ever do anything good? Like blind SUV drivers.
posted by wfrgms at 3:26 PM on December 29, 2004


Patrick Smith is the tits.

However, doesn't anyone think it's a problem if people are shining lasers at planes and injuring pilots' retinas? I mean, it's not a very effective terrorist action, but it's a stupid and thoughtless thing to do and I expect very uncomfortable for the guy/gal with the injured retina.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:32 PM on December 29, 2004


We can't completely secure airplanes from ground-based attacks unless we are willing to secure -- by which I mean bulldoze and fence off -- an area for several miles around every single large airport. People may be willing to tolerate invasive TSA searches, but they aren't going to sit still for land confiscation. (ilsa)

My folks live just south of DTW. Many of their neighbors have had their land bought and the houses moved, all in the name of "noise abatement". The only way the powers that be at DTW could keep noise complaints down was to move the people.

It's only a short step to doing the same thing for 'security' purposes.
posted by jlkr at 3:35 PM on December 29, 2004


Can consumer lasers really bring down planes?

I don't know about everyday consumer models, but some outdoor laser attractions are already noted on aviation charts. Take a look at a small excerpt from the Detroit sectional map.

The offending lasers here come from Six Flags.
posted by tss at 3:52 PM on December 29, 2004


I'm still scared shitless about floating beer coolers to even think about this.
posted by Arch Stanton at 3:55 PM on December 29, 2004


However, doesn't anyone think it's a problem if people are shining lasers at planes and injuring pilots' retinas?

Sure, it's a stupid thing to do. But then again, it's a really hard thing to do. How close can you get to a landing airplane? I dunno, but a really generous scenario to me seems like a couple hundred meters. A laser beam is collimated very well, and even though they expand as they fly, the pupil of an airline pilot is a very small target, and you have to hit it with a very narrow beam. The farther you are away, the less power the beam delivers, and the harder the pupil becomes to hit.

You are not, repeat, NOT going to blind a pilot with a laser pointer. No ifs, ands, or buts about it -- you'd have to hit that tiny target of the pupil, and remain trained on it, for several seconds. Hitting it at all would be a miracle, at which point the pilot says "what the hell!" and looks a way.

If you were a real crackpot, you could get a much better laser, one that could actually have some chance of causing blindness. But you still have the very challenging job of actually hitting the pilot's pupil. And then, to cause anything other than a single blind pilot, you have to take out both pilots. At which point, one has to ask, who other than a crazy person is going to be trying this? If you really want to take out airliners, this is stupid. If you have the technology to blind pilots with ultra-precise, powerful, field-deployable (and as yet undeveloped) lasers, you could just afford a stinger missile. If you just want to down planes, your odds are probably better with the frozen chicken mentioned above.

In short: no, this is not something to worry about. Not at all. It is irrational paranoia to think the airlines are in danger from gangs of laser-wielding pilot-blinders. So in the rare instances when some nutjob does this, prosecute them. Otherwise, lets just forget this nonsense.
posted by teece at 4:10 PM on December 29, 2004


Well, hrm. Couldn't find it with google but I did read of a police laser device under testing to disable the driver of a car as an alternative to high speed persuit. Instead of causing eye damage, the goal was to use flaws in the windshield to scatter the beam, making it impossible to see through the windshield.

Of course, pilots are trained to deal with "shit happens" moments worse than momentary loss of visibility during takeoff/landing. It is my impression that it is possible to land planes blind nowdays.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:27 PM on December 29, 2004


Maybe the lasers are intended to annoy the pilots to death?

And I saw proof, a frozen chicken is a much more lethal object than a raw chicken. I saw it on the Mythbusters!

Arch, thanks, now I have to be scared of my beer cooler too? Maybe terrorists snuck into my garage and rigged an explosive device in it. Damn it. Oh well, I guess I'll have to shoot it a whole bunch of times and make sure its not rigged to blow.
posted by fenriq at 4:30 PM on December 29, 2004


My spouse used to be a graduate student in chemical engineering at Berkeley, and in his lab there was a very official-looking warning sign that read:

CAUTION

DO NOT LOOK INTO LASER
WITH REMAINING EYE
posted by digaman at 4:37 PM on December 29, 2004


So in the rare instances when some nutjob does this, prosecute them. Otherwise, lets just forget this nonsense.

I agree, but I was also concerned to hear that at least one pilot has suffered an eye injury from a laser beam (either accidentally or purposefully caused).

I don't expect actual, organized terrorists to do this, but given the human costs of the nutjob who mailed anthrax around the US in the fall of 2001, I think it's worth contemplating the idea that some nutjobs might be inspired to do this laser thing as well. Inspired, perhaps, by the crazy "sky is falling" media coverage.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:49 PM on December 29, 2004


It is my understanding the Terrorists are planning to cause massive chaos by projecting red dots on the crotches of unsuspecting passers-by. The ensuing embarassment would no doubt disrupt our economy irrepairably.

Furthermore, they intend to disrupt our local news and prevent us from ever learning if It Could Happen Here!
posted by stet at 4:54 PM on December 29, 2004


wonder if anyone's confiscating laser pointers at airports...

terrorist forces his way into the cockpit, grabs the pilots head, forces open the pilot's eyelids and blinds him with his laser pointer.

no amount of land confiscation could stop that.
posted by knapah at 5:35 PM on December 29, 2004


Yes, yes, and?

*furiously transmits information to Albania*
posted by graventy at 6:33 PM on December 29, 2004


The military is worried enough about this to invest a large amount of money into developing protective goggles for their pilots. The goggles will automatically darken like sunglasses, but in microseconds.
posted by 445supermag at 6:33 PM on December 29, 2004


The goggles will automatically darken like sunglasses, but in microseconds.
Hmm. Military pilots with peril-sensitive sunglasses? It'll all end in tears ...
posted by kaemaril at 6:54 PM on December 29, 2004


I watched Bowling for Columbine for the first time last night and yes Michael Moore puts together crappy documentaries with very loose arguments but I think he had a point about how the media and government use fear to control us. Theoretically terrorists could also catapult frozen turkeys into the engines of jetliners taking off from airports to kill people too.
posted by JJ86 at 6:57 PM on December 29, 2004


It's OK, Infinite Jest, some of us got your Taxi Driver reference.
posted by letourneau at 7:24 PM on December 29, 2004


This reminds me of a spate of scare stories in the UK press in 2003 - see Laser pens ban on school buses - about vandals shining laser pointers into bus/train drivers' eyes. Yes, lasers can cause eye damage - but, as sour cream said, sustained contact via hand-held lasers on a small target at distance seems very unlikely. As Professor John Marshall said, the after-effects of such attacks are down to anxiety and misguided treatment. For instance, in Train laser pair sentenced: " Mr Jonah was treated in hospital for a temporary injury to his tear duct". A low-powered laser won't damage your tear duct, but rubbing your eye like mad in a panic might.
posted by raygirvan at 7:35 PM on December 29, 2004


It's OK, Infinite Jest, some of us got your Taxi Driver reference.

oh yeah, taxi driver. I remember that. That was a good scene.
posted by puke & cry at 8:04 PM on December 29, 2004


One of my companies sells laser systems for deep ocean topography among other things. Little that we use can't be sourced by the average consumer. Targetting is not particularly difficult either.

This is very feasible and would be neither expensive nor complicated.
posted by glider at 8:20 PM on December 29, 2004



Like I said a month ago when this item broke, the solution is clear.  All we have to do is send a bunch of kittens to the Middle East.  When they see how much fun you can have with a kitten and a laser pointer, they’ll forget all about defeating the Great Satan.

Trust me on this. Kittens.
posted by cj_ at 8:21 PM on December 29, 2004 [1 favorite]


cj_ is right. Laser pointers are the best cat toys on this green Earth.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:35 PM on December 29, 2004


Targetting is not particularly difficult either.

This is very feasible and would be neither expensive nor complicated.

Really? Targeting the retina of a pilot in a moving aircraft from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of meters is not difficult?

Sorry, don't buy that at all. Is it possible? I imagine. Is it "not difficult?" Not a chance.
posted by teece at 9:56 PM on December 29, 2004


Targetting is not particularly difficult either.

It seems you would have to redirect the laser.
I could imagine mirrors hanging from baloons or birds.
posted by lacus at 11:19 PM on December 29, 2004


(/me makes note to buy laser pointer for cat)
posted by alumshubby at 4:10 AM on December 30, 2004


Here goes a link to a Yahoo news story which cites several recent incidents.
posted by fixedgear at 4:18 AM on December 30, 2004


well, i better get over to thinkgeek and buy one of those green laser pointers before the feds come and confiscate them all.

stupid feds. why they gotta keep telling the ter'rists what to do to make us all 'fraid?
posted by caution live frogs at 5:22 AM on December 30, 2004


teece, you don't have to target the retina directly, and lacus, you can get a shot that's just fine from the ground both because even if the windows are such that much of the approach is obscured, the planes bank, plus the inside of the cockpit is highly reflective. From a laser pointer? That would be a crazy-lucky shot. From a bigger laser? No problem.
posted by glider at 6:52 AM on December 30, 2004


I have gotten a laser-pointer-in-the-eye (by accident, not by terrorists) and let me tell you it hurts like a mofo.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:30 AM on December 30, 2004


The military is worried enough about this to invest a large amount of money into developing protective goggles for their pilots. The goggles will automatically darken like sunglasses, but in microseconds.

They've had helmets like this for SAC pilots for years. You look like a flat-eyed bug wearing one, but the lenses lighten and darken "instantly" to prevent pilots from being blinded by nuke flashes.

stupid feds. why they gotta keep telling the ter'rists what to do to make us all 'fraid?

Actually, Tom Clancy seems to be beating us all to it. Had a 747 hitting the Capitol in "Debt of Honor", massive virus release in "Executive Orders" and I believe it was also "Debt Of Honor" where he has a team using a xenon-projector to down Japanese recon flights.

I'm just sayin...
posted by TeamBilly at 7:41 AM on December 30, 2004


I think some of us are missing an important fact about lasers, they don't spread much, but they do attenuate. At the kind of distances people would be shooting a plane with the lasers, the beam creates a spot like 5-10 ft across. you don't need to aim for the pilots retina, just the front of the plane.
posted by Megafly at 7:53 AM on December 30, 2004


Well, true Megafly but only a small fraction of the total optical power could possibly enter the eye so I don't know how effective that would be except to create an annoyance for the pilot.

hmmmm.
posted by j.p. Hung at 8:44 AM on December 30, 2004


As usual, much ado from our fascist overlords about nothing ... it's actually fairly common, especially in glitzy places like Las Vegas.

I refer you to NTSB report LAX96IA032, about an incident aboard a Southwest 737-5H4 at Las Vegas:
'The aircraft was climbing through about 4,500 feet agl on a standard instrument departure route when the first officer, who was the flying pilot, said a laser beam swept past the cockpit and he immediately experienced eye pain and was completely blinded in the right eye. After image effects also induced a blind condition in his left eye. He said the total inability to see lasted 30 seconds, and for an additional 2 minutes, he could not focus on or interpret any instrument indications and was completely disoriented in his spatial relationship to the vertical. The captain was not irradiated by the beam and assumed control of the aircraft and continued the climb. Many of the larger hotels in Las Vegas have some sort of outdoor laser light show. Most of these installations have both fixed/stationary (static) beams of relatively high power and 'dancing' beams of lower power which flash about the sky in irregular patterns. ... The source of the laser could not be established with certainty. Fifty-one prior incidents of laser irradiations to pilots have been recorded by the Las Vegas air traffic facility over the past 2 years.'
[Emphasis mine.]
52 incidents of pilot laser irradiations between 1993 and 95. But suddenly it's freaky-deaky from the news and gummint this week. Interesting.

As for chickens and jet engines, well, it's probably apocraphyl since it's been spread around the web so often, but there's the story of NASA loaning British railway engineers its chicken cannon, which shoots dead birds at high velocities at aircraft windows and engines to ... well, see what happens. The engineers used it to test a high-speed locomotive and were rather astonished to see the chicken punch through the cab and create rather a mess. They e-mailed NASA with a question or two and NASA told them to 'thaw the chicken out first next time.' Yeesh.
posted by AirBeagle at 8:46 AM on December 30, 2004


Why go buy a frozen chicken when you could throw rocks?

Is the function of government really to make us afraid of every last item in a conventional supermarket?
posted by codger at 9:00 AM on December 30, 2004


One time I was on a flight to Trinidad and the landing was extremely bumpy... I thought the pilot missed the runway or something. However, he later notified the very pissed passengers that he was required to do an auto-pilot landing. So in otherwords, he didn't land the plane at all. So... I was wondering, if a pilot was blinded by lasers or whatever, couldn't he just invoke autopilot and have it land the plane?
posted by yossarian1 at 9:23 AM on December 30, 2004


Thanks, AirBeagle! I guess it is something that pilots are aware of as a rare-but-possible accidental hazard of the skies. It seems like too much work for too little return for terrorists, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:28 AM on December 30, 2004


codger: because the possibility of a rock cruising by at 10,000 and being sucked into an engine is much less than a bird flying by and having the worst day of it's soon-to-be-drastically-curtailed life?
posted by kaemaril at 12:18 PM on December 30, 2004


My pleasure, Sidhedevil ... I'm a crazed fanatic 'bout this kinda stuff.

So, speaking of bird strikes ... here's more than you really want to know about little birds bringing down big birds in the last 45 years, from the famous 4-Oct-60 downing of an Eastern L-188 Electra by a flock of starlings at Boston Logan (in which 62 of 72 people on board and most of the starlings died) to the 22-Sep-95 encounter of a US Air Force E-3B jet with 'numerous geese' at Elmendorf AFB, AK (in which the 'numerous geese' and all 24 onboard the E-3B died).

I was once flying with a friend who owns a Cessna 152. We were on approach to a runway in central Oklahoma when we spotted a flock of geese waddling around the side of said runway. We executed a TOGA (take-off, go-around) and flew the pattern until the geese decided to decamp for other parts. All of us lived to fly another day. Using a Cessna as an airborne food processor is not only messy and unsightly, but can significantly ruin your day. And the pate that results tastes like avfuel. Ick.
posted by AirBeagle at 5:25 PM on December 30, 2004


At least the Cessna is stable enough to nearly land itself (most of my flight training has been done in a 152) if that happens.

That E3B....


posted by TeamBilly at 8:28 AM on December 31, 2004


What do people think of this? Does it prove that lasers that consumers can acquire do pose some risk?
posted by sindark at 12:40 AM on January 5, 2005


Update:

Idiot in New Jersey Shines Laser at Private Jet, Police Helicopter; Arrested.

Terrorists, humph. Read the story--it is hilarious.
posted by Mid at 8:54 AM on January 5, 2005


Another Update:
Not sure if this Sky and Telescope article pre or post-dates the New Jersey suspect's admission, but it offers amateur astronomers some good advice on the use of "green" lasers in pursuit of our hobby.
posted by OneOliveShort at 9:42 PM on January 7, 2005


kaemeril: last I checked, chickens (particularly the frozen ones) don't fly.

But yes, point well taken. Rocks at 10,000 feet could well be called, what, mountains?
posted by codger at 10:45 AM on January 13, 2005


« Older Great Shockwave Game...  |  Stop-motion clips from some of... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments