Helicopters Magazine

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The Threat From Below

Lasers are a critical part of our everyday life, born out of post-war research at Bell Labs and Columbia University.


July 18, 2014
By Paul Dixon

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Lasers are a critical part of our everyday life, born out of post-war research at Bell Labs and Columbia University. An extremely simply definition of a laser would be to describe it as a device that produces an intense, directional, coherent beam of light. Aviation as we know it today would not be possible without the laser, but one small niche of the laser market is rapidly becoming a threat to aviation.

RCMP_Air1  
A highly co-ordinated attack from a variety of sources helps the RCMP’s Air 1 nab suspected laser criminals.
(Photo courtesy of RCMP)


 

The proliferation of laser strikes on aircraft around the world has grown exponentially over the past decade, across North America, Europe and Australia and New Zealand. While no crashes have been linked to laser strikes, laser strikes on aircraft have had an impact on operations and there exists the potential for serious and possibly permanent vision damage to pilots and air crew.

 In Canada, police helicopters, air ambulance and news helicopters have been the main focus of laser strikes, but there are a number of reported strikes on commercial helicopters and several instances of eye damage resulting in time off work for pilots. Earlier this year, an Ornge air ambulance service was targetted twice by a green laser beam northeast of Ottawa airport. A similar 2009 lasing incident left an Ornge pilot with serious eye damage and grounded him for several weeks after he was hit with a laser beam while flying at about 2,000 feet over the Gatineau Hills.

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Fortunately, there is relief in sight for this very real and serious threat to pilots and operators alike. Action is being taken across a wide front, as technology is being developed to mitigate the effect of lasers; industry groups are banding together to lobby Ottawa for legislation to address the threat, and various police forces and NAV Canada are working together to apprehend culprits and bring them before the courts.


By the Numbers

The first laser strikes on aircraft were reported in the mid-1990s, with Transport Canada (TC) establishing a reporting system in conjunction with Health Canada in 2000. There were 384 reported incidents in 2013, compared to 3,492 in the U.S. during the same period.

The number of incidents has grown exponentially since then, with almost 3,500 reported by 2013 and the expectation is that 2014 could easily see an increase to 4,500 incidents. TC, in conjunction with Health Canada, established an incident reporting system in 2000, with 461 reported strikes in 2013. The lasers used in many of these incidents are sold as toys or novelties, but they are anything but mere toys.

A laser differs from other sources of light in that it emits light coherently, which results in the laser beam staying tightly focused over great distances. When aimed at an aircraft from the ground, the beam of light from an inexpensive handheld laser can easily travel many kilometres and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. Pilots who have been subject to such attacks have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night.

Lasers are divided into a number of classes depending upon the power or energy of the beam and the wavelength of the emitted radiation. Laser classification is based on the laser’s potential for causing immediate injury to the eye or skin and/or potential for causing fires from direct exposure to the beam or from reflections from diffuse reflective surfaces. Here’s a breakdown of laser types:

  • Class I lasers are the lowest powered and are considered safe, as they are usually fully contained within a device such as a CD player.
  • Class II lasers emit up to 1mW and are safe during normal use in such devices as keychain laser pointers. If they are shone directly at a person, the blink reflex of the eye will prevent damage.
  • Class IIIa lasers emit up to 5 mW and involve a small risk of eye damage within the time of the blink reflex. Staring into such a beam for several seconds is likely to cause damage to a spot on the retina.
  • Class IIIb lasers cover a range from 5 to 500 Mw and have scientific uses. They are also used in entertainment light shows. Direct exposure is hazardous to the eye and even diffuse reflections of the beam can cause damage.
  • Class IV lasers are used in laser surgery and industrial applications such as drilling, cutting and welding. Class IV lasers can cause severe eye damage, burns to skin and can be a fire hazard depending on the actual strength of the beam.

Class II and Class IIIa laser pointers are typically used by lecturers to highlight presentations or by amateur astronomers to point out stars and constellations in the night sky. In the U.S., federal regulations limit hand-held pointers to an output of 5mW, while in Canada, Health Canada advises that Class IIIb and Class IV lasers should only be used in a controlled environment by those who have the appropriate level of training.

Many countries have outlawed the importation and possession of Class 3a and Class 4 laser pointers by the general public, but this may do little to stop the problem. Laser pointers are freely available for sale over the internet, for a small fraction of what they cost a few years ago. Canada Border Services and U.S. Customs have audited shipments on several occasions and have reported that customs labels from the point of origin have listed the contents of the package as “flashlights” in more than than half the instances.  In 2013, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) tested 122 laser pointers obtained via a wide range of sources.  All the pointers were labeled as being Class 3a and 90 per cent were found to emit more than the allowed visible light, up to 10 times the stated limit.  A lack of quality control by manufacturers, coupled with the indifference of distributors and ignorance on the part of the purchaser can turn a supposedly harmless toy into a lethal weapon.

One reason for the proliferation of laser pointers has been the drastic drop in prices in recent years. Units that would have cost hundreds of dollars even 10 years ago are available over the Internet for a fraction of that today. Further compounding the problem is the mislabelling of lasers, often deliberately, with the result that even if a person is legitimately buying a Class IIIa laser pointer, the product they receive is many times more powerful.

Most critically, the majority of these lasers are green lasers, which can have a devastating impact on the human eye with only brief exposure. This adds up to create a serious threat to aviation.  Pilots are generally targetted at the worst possible time for them, when the aircraft is at low altitude during critical phases of flight. The effect of the laser can range from being a distraction, to momentarily blinding a pilot with the glare and even potentially cause temporary or permanent damage to the eye if the laser is powerful enough.


A High-Risk Factor

The majority of reported incidents in both Canada and the U.S. are commercial airlines in close proximity to airports, when the aircraft are at a level that allows the laser to easily enter the cockpit. There have been several reports of pilots forced to conduct a missed approach due to the laser interference. The most extreme instance to date was reported in April 2011, when a U.S. Air Force C-17 reported receiving a laser strike as it transited Canadian air space at 31,000 feet over Riviere-de-Loupe, Que.

FBI_Airplane  
FBI laser cockpit simulation of green laser striking cockpit. (Photo courtesy of the FBI)  

Laser strikes on aircraft are reportable incidents for TC’s purposes and any time a pilot or crew member is on the receiving end of a laser strike, it becomes an occupational health and safety issue, as well as reportable within the company’s SMS framework. Air Canada and WestJet now have mandatory eye exams for pilots who have been lasered.

The U.S. Coast Guard has reported numerous incidents of lasering directed towards their helicopters, even during rescue missions, in numerous locations. Across the U.S., police helicopters have become favourite targets of laser attack, largely due to the fact that they fly close to the ground and are an easy target. In Canada, police helicopters operating in urban areas across the country have also been lasered. What sets the police helicopter apart from the other victims in the sky is that, by the nature of their mission, they have the very equipment required to go on the offensive and hunt the laser thugs – IR scanners, video and high-powered searchlights are the tools of the trade.


Is Justice Being Served?

A report from the U.S. states that of 17,725 reported laser incidents between 2005 and 2013 there were only 135 arrests, suggesting that the chances of getting caught are virtually nil. What the report fails to consider is that when a police helicopter is the target, the chances of locating and apprehending the culprit are very good. Arrests in the U.S. have increased dramatically as the FBI has taken the investigative lead in laser incidents and police air units are actively targetting laser incidents. The air unit of the LA Country Sheriff’s Office, for example, announced earlier this year a 75 per cent arrest rate in incidents where their helicopters had been targetted.

laser strikes  
A pair of laser strikes earlier this year proved troublesome for an Ornge pilot near Ottawa.
(Matt Nicholls photo)
 

Being able to locate and identify the position of the offender on the ground is one thing, but it takes teamwork between the air unit and the police officers on the ground to actually catch someone with the smoking laser. Sgt. Cam Kowalski is a supervisor at Richmond RCMP, the Vancouver suburb that is home to Vancouver International Airport. One night in 2011, the RCMP dispatch received a call from the tower at YVR, reporting an aircraft had been lasered as it passed over Richmond as it was inbound to the airport. So what are we going to do about it, thought Sgt. Kowalski.

About the same time, Greg Down, a Shift Manager with Nav Canada at YVR, was experiencing frustration with trying to report laser strikes as in-progress events to police agencies in metro Vancouver. Kowalski and Down knew each other from working together during the 2010 Olympics as members of the aviation security unit and were able to draw on the relationships they had established with the agencies involved with aviation and public safety in Canada.

Education is the key to attacking the laser strike issue, and prior to the past few years, most people in law enforcement had little knowledge of how serious the problem of laser strikes was becoming. They also had very little idea of what to do with someone they caught using a laser. Enhanced communications and sharing information amongst departments is critical, both internally and externally.

To help the situation, Cpl. Paul Hayes, working as a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) on RCMP Air 1 in metro Vancouver, became involved with the program. Presentations were made to patrol officers across the region and once the front-line police officers understood the impact that lasers could have on a resource – one they depended on themselves – they were committed to protecting that resource. Kowalski organized training days that brought together police, air traffic controllers and prosecutors. Educating the prosecutors to the seriousness of the problem was critical, as it gets them firmly on board in approving charges and then taking the case to court.

Greg Down of NAV Canada, worked with E-Comm, the agency that dispatches for most of the Vancouver police agencies, to develop a protocol for reporting laser strikes to police when they were happening as “in-progress” incidents. Previously, NAV Canada personnel would call 911 and work through several time-consuming steps, literally starting from scratch with each call. Now, tower staff at YVR can call an E-Comm supervisor on a direct line and the call is handled with the highest priority. Police are dispatched to the area, along with the air unit if available.

In the first 10 months of this coordinated approach, there were 13 police responses with four arrests. In cases where Air 1 is the primary target of the laser, the helicopter will go on the offensive. Pilot and observer don protective eyewear and initially attempt to locate the source of the emissions and suspects on the ground using their infra-red and video equipment. When the air unit locates the suspect(s), ground units are directed to the location and the arrest is made, with the incident captured on video from start to finish.

Of the arrests that have been made to date in Canada, these are a few of the convictions to date:

  • In April 2011, a Langley, B.C. resident pleaded guilty to three charges under the Aeronautics Act after pointing a green laser at RCMP Air 1. He received a conditional sentence with a nighttime curfew and a ban on possessing lasers.
  • In June 2012, a Winnipeg man was sentenced to 15 hours community service after being convicted under the Aeronautics Act for shining a laser pointer at a police helicopter, temporarily blinding the pilot. He had purchased the device on eBay for 99 cents.
  • Also in June 2012, a Calgary man pleaded guilty to a count of criminal mischief and a second count under the Aeronautics Act after Calgary Police HAWC 1 was lasered. He received a conditional sentence and a year’s probation.
  • In April 2014, three men in Edmonton were each fined $3,000 after they admitted pointing a green laser at Edmonton Police Air 1. The prosecutor described the incident as a “continuous, relentless attack,” with the helicopter being targetted for more than two minutes.

American authorities have taken a zero-tolerance approach to laser incidents interfering with aviation, with the FBI taking the lead on investigations and federal prosecutions. In March 2014, a 26-year-old California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter and a medical emergency transport helicopter. His girlfriend received a two-year prison term and there are scores of other cases currently working their way through the American court system.

laser pointer  
A high-powered laser pointer is pointed skyward in a residential neighbourhood.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)


 

Technology provides some relief as several companies are marketing eyewear specifically designed to neutralize the damaging effects of lasers by blocking the radiation in the specific wavelengths that can damage the eye. Airbus announced in June that it would be testing a film made by Lamda Guard of Dartmouth, N.S., under the name “metaAir”. The adhesive film can be engineered to either absorb or reflect the desired wavelengths without interfering with normal visibility. A number of universities in North American and around the world are actively involved in research on similar methods of screening or blocking laser light.

Australia banned the importation and simple possession of lasers greater than 1 Mw power in 2008. The United States, European Union and other countries are actively working towards adopting regulations banning lasers above 5Mw, without a permit. In Canada, the Helicopter Association of Canada and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police are two of the many organizations lobbying the federal government to enact stricter regulations. Enacting legislation may make it more difficult for the average person to purchase a laser pointer, but there’s an old adage about turning people into criminals.

With lasers to date, the vast majority of incidents involving aircraft have involved individuals who really didn’t understand the implications of what they were doing. It was just a neat toy. In the future, however, what’s going to happen when the people who are pointing the lasers are doing it deliberately and the instruments they are using are not toys?


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