WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Aiming a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime that can net offenders up to five years in jail or cost them a $250,000 fine. Even with this heavy potential penalty, laser strikes have become increasingly more common. According to the FAA, 6,852 such incidents were reported in 2020, compared with 385 in 2006, and so far this year, incidents of “joy lasing” are up 20 percent over last year. Cheap and easily obtained, hand-held lasers used as pointers and cat toys are certainly harmless when used as intended. But when they are aimed at the cockpit of an aircraft, they can temporarily blind the pilot — with possibly deadly consequences.
Laser strikes are almost always made at low altitudes when an aircraft is taking off or preparing to land — the two parts of flying that require the most attention from a pilot. Even if the beam of light does not hit the pilot’s eyes directly, it can cause a distraction or even raise an alarm that the plane may have become a target. In addition to the possible adverse effects of these human reactions, slight imperfections in the plane’s windscreen can cause the laser light to spread out, creating a glare that can temporarily obscure all vision inside the cockpit.
Of course, passing a law against any behavior — including pointing a laser at an airplane — seldom puts an end to the behavior. Thus, the best way to avoid disaster from laser strikes is to provide some sort of protection for the pilot. As a result, in recent years several manufacturers have developed laser eye protection (LEP) to meet a growing demand for help from military and law enforcement pilots. But this solution is not without problems of its own.
Most laser eye protection works by filtering out green or red light, the colors most commonly used in handheld lasers. Unfortunately, according to FAA studies and years of pilot experience, this can change the pilot’s ability to accurately read the instrument control panel. A 2019 FAA report suggested that this problem might be fixed by changing the type of lighting in the control panel.
Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory recently came up with a better solution, one that was successfully tested on the job by Washington State Patrol pilots.
The Personnel Protection Team in AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, headed by Dr. Matthew Lange, used the cockpit compatibility design software developed for Department of Defense LEP and modified it for commercial use. The commercial version, called CALI (Commercial Aviation Low Intensity) filters out the laser light, but not the light coming from the pilot’s instrument panel. “Simply put,” said Lange, “the lenses maximize protection while minimizing the impact to the cockpit.”
According to Lange, AFRL currently works with the industrial base on all levels of LEP development, production and sustainment, from “cradle to grave.”
“We are involved from the basic research for creating the lenses into how to scale up production at the industrial level,” said Lange. “There are already a handful of manufacturers out there who can make optical grade polycarbonate lenses incorporating the technology used in the CALI system.”
Lange went on to explain that AFRL has been working on laser eye protection for more than 20 years. “When Materials and Manufacturing comes up with a design, the 711th Human Performance Wing tests it and gives us feedback on what needs to be changed,” said Lange. “The expertise that exists within AFRL right now is based on that pedigree.”
Lange stressed the importance of the collaboration between his lab, AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, and private industry to come up with the new dyes and coatings and making sure they were incorporated into the final product. Lange especially acknowledged team members Maggie Lankford, Nicholas Garvin, Gregg…