Blame Einstein

Pilot Vigilance Top Option Against Laser Attacks
Rick Adams
January 08, 2016
By Rick Adams
Should Canada increase the penalties for the hooligans and sociopaths who aim laser lights at aircraft? Under the Aeronautics Act, those convicted of pointing a laser at an aircraft could face up to $100,000 in fines, five years in prison, or both. By comparison, U.S. federal law allows up to 20 years in prison and a US$250,000 ($333,000) fine.


In theory, under the Criminal Code of Canada, life imprisonment is an option, but no one believes any judge would hand down that severe a punishment unless the laser attack caused an aircraft crash.

Indeed, it doesn’t help to have tough-language laws on the books when the judiciary fails to follow through. Earlier this year in the U.S., the notoriously contrarian Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 14-year jail sentence of a gang-history criminal on the flimsy premise that he “may not have known” that the bright green light was a danger to the pilot of a Fresno, Calif. police helicopter. Just aiming at an aircraft, the judges concluded, “is not, in and of itself, sufficient to allow a rational factfinder to conclude that [the defendant] acted with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life.”

The arrest and conviction rates – irrespective of generally light punishments – are abysmally low: only about two per cent of reported incidents result in arrest, and fewer than two-thirds of those lead to convictions. Nearly all of the culprits are male (96 per cent), who apparently equate pen-sized pointers with manhood-validating Jedi light sabers.

Transport Canada (TC) is hoping an education campaign, tagged “Not A Bright Idea” will help deter those who are truly unaware of the dangers of shining lasers at low-flying aircraft. “The department takes this issue very seriously, which is why we launched a national safety awareness campaign with our partners, the Vancouver International Airport, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and NAV Canada. The aim is to reduce laser strikes by helping Canadians better understand the serious risks and consequences of pointing a laser at an aircraft and to encourage the public and pilots to report laser strikes if they witness or experience them,” said Natasha Gauthier, TC senior media relations advisor.

Gauthier told us there have been 488 laser-strike incidents in 2015 through October, which would equate to a year-end total of 586, compared with 502 in 2014. That’s about a 67 per cent increase since 2012.

In the U.S., the numbers are even worse. Based on 5,148 “illuminations” through early October, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates there will be between 6,600 and 7,100 incidents in 2015 – a 176 per cent increase over 2014’s total of 3,894 incidents.

Most pilots by now know the drill when confronted with a laser attack: Fly the plane first; don’t look directly toward the light; block the light if possible; turn up the cockpit lights; resist the urge to rub your eyes. And many have handy or wear special laser-protective eyewear.

A promising new solution from a Nova Scotia company, Metamaterial Technologies subsidiary Lamda Guard, is a special film coating, 100 times thinner than a human hair, which selectively blocks specific narrow-band light frequencies (such as laser beams and other bright lights) by reflection. Known as metaAir, the aircraft windscreen coating uses an array of “nano-particles.” Lamba Guard is working with Airbus to bring the coating to the aviation market. Metamaterial Technologies is also participating in the Canadian Technology Accelerator in Silicon Valley, which specializes in growing tech start-ups and small-medium enterprises.

So how is aviation’s laser problem Einstein’s fault? Two years after revealing his theory of relativity, in 1917 Professor Albert proposed a process called “stimulated emission” – stimulating electrons to emit light of a particular wavelength. It took four more decades before scientists translated that theory into laser light, which certainly has useful applications in medical devices, military target identification, retail checkout scanners, and tormenting cats. But I’m sure Einstein would be appalled that his vision has also been turned into an instrument of evil by unthinking or malicious malcontents.


Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy based in the south of France, and is editor of ICAO Journal. He has been writing about technology and training for 30 years.


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