By ELLEN SIMON, AP Technology Writer
NEW YORK – Lasers mark dates on boxes of butter. They cut gems and engrave vehicle identification numbers into cars. They are the key components in compact disc and DVD players. Like so much in the high-tech world, they keep getting cheaper and more powerful. And with at least eight reports in recent weeks of lasers pointed at aircraft cockpits as they approached for landing, their ubiquity could pose a problem for aviation.
A New Jersey man was arrested Tuesday after authorities say he admitted to pointing a laser at a helicopter and a jet. The FBI (news – web sites) and Department of Homeland Security sent a memo to law enforcement agencies last month saying they had evidence terrorists have explored using lasers as weapons.
Federal officials have said there is no evidence the recent cases are part of a terrorist plot, and such incidents are nothing new: a Federal Aviation Administration (news – web sites) study said «several hundred» similar cases have been reported since the mid 1990s.
Despite their ubiquity, lasers fall under strict government scrutiny.
The Food and Drug Administration (news – web sites) regulates lasers and divides them into four classes. Midlevel lasers are the type used in supermarket scanners. Class four lasers pose an eye and skin hazard.
Companies that manufacture lasers, integrate lasers into another product or modify lasers must file paperwork on their products with the FDA (news – web sites).
But at least one company, which claims to be an «original equipment manufacturer,» sells lasers to anyone with a credit card. A laser advertised as «strong enough to burn holes in a black trash bag» sells for $289.
Lasers like those are «orders of magnitude stronger than what it takes to injure an eye,» said William J. Ertle, president of Rockwell Laser Industries Inc., which sells protective eyewear to use with lasers. The fact that such lasers are available online is «scary and concerning,» he said.
Jerry Dennis, an FDA consumer safety officer who monitors lasers, said lasers sold by original equipment manufacturers «are strictly for use as components, rather than for use to the general public.»
«We are addressing that particular concern as best we can,» he said.
But «we don’t control the sales. We regulate the products,» Dennis said. «When the law was written, that was the extent of the authority given to us.
Wickedlaser.com did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and a receptionist at the phone number listed in the domain name’s registration records said she knew nothing about the company.
The site warned that «Lasers are very dangerous and not toys. … Never point a laser at a moving vehicle or airplane. Shining a laser at an airplane is a serious felony in the United States.»
Lasers have gone from laboratory rarities to cheap giveaways. The first laser, made in 1960, used an expensive ruby crystal. Now key chains with laser pointers sell for $1.75.
David Banach, 38, the man charged with using a laser to temporarily blind the pilot and co-pilot of a plane flying near the Teterboro, N.J., airport, bought the laser on the Internet for $100 to use for his job testing fiber-optic cable, his lawyer said. Banach has said he was using the laser to look at the stars with his 7-year-old daughter.
Some sporting venues and school systems have strict prohibitions on laser pointers. They are banned in Malaysia, at Philadelphia Eagles football games and many school districts.
Laser light shows are also regulated. Standards are recommended to the FDA by a committee of experts that includes a research optometrist who works for the FAA (news – web sites), as well as representatives from the U.S. Navy (news – web sites), NASA (news – web sites) and the International Laser Display Association.
Companies that put on laser light shows must get FDA approval; companies that do shows outdoors are also reviewed by the FAA.
Some pilots are asking whether there’s a way to alert crews when a laser has targeted their plane. The FAA study, released in June, found that even the lowest-intensity lasers temporarily impaired the vision of most of 34 pilots it studied in a flight simulator.
The U.S. Navy expects to roll out a detection device early this year for military use. It can be mounted to a plane’s bulkhead and will alert a flight crew if their plane is being tracked by a laser.
Under development for 2 1/2 years, the laser event recorder uses software algorithms to measure a laser’s intensity and compute whether it could hurt a crew’s eyes.
Its normally green display panel emits a yellow light if the plane is being tracked by a laser that can’t harm vision. If that laser can affect vision, red will appear to warn the pilot to wear protective eye gear or take evasive action. The Navy Air Systems Command has also developed protective eyewear for different laser wavelengths, said James Darcy, a spokesman for the Navy Air Systems Command.
The device is smaller than a box of macaroni and cheese, runs on AA batteries and has a flash memory card that takes a picture of where the laser emanated. It also uses the Global Positioning System to record the plane’s location when the laser was detected.
The recorder is expected to cost about $3,000 per unit, though it’s unclear whether they’ll ever make it into commercial airplanes.
James Engel, president of Optra Inc., which will make the recorders, said he’s received no inquiries from commercial airliners. Beside the Navy, only the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance, an advocacy group, has inquired about the device.
By ELLEN SIMON, AP Technology Writer