Laser attacks on planes doubled in 2010

For less than $30 you can purchase a laser pointer upwards of 100 milliwatts, powerful enough to pinpoint a star in the sky with an eerie green beam. Astronomers are fond of the devices. Unfortunately, so are pranksters and vandals.

Reports of lasers aimed at airplanes have nearly doubled in the last year, leaping from 1,527 in 2009 to 2,836 in 2010 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced this week.

"This is a serious safety issue," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the prepared statement. Deliberately shining a laser at a plane is also a federal offence.

A sudden flash of laser light inside a cockpit can dangerously distract a pilot by imposing the same kind of temporary blindness that often follows a powerful camera flash. The past few years have witnessed a number of what seem to be malicious laser attacks on aircraft. In March of 2008, unidentified individuals wielding four green laser pointers launched a coordinated attack on six incoming airplanes at Sydney Airport.

In February 2009, 12 pilots landing their planes at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reported similar disturbances. This month 52-year-old Gerard Sasso of Medford, Massachusetts was sentenced to three years in prison after intercepting a State Police helicopter with an industrial grade green laser. He was only the second man in the United States to ever be convicted of lasering an aircraft.

"I think the chances of this happening at cruise altitude are slim, but the chances during take off or approach are pretty good," says Jay Apt a retired NASA astronaut and pilot who currently teaches at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. "Is this a nuisance that people ought to be aware of? Absolutely. I don't want some yahoo waving around his green laser near an airport."

The Food and Drug Administration says that any laser device whose power exceeds 5 milliwatts cannot be marketed or sold as a laser pointer. And the FAA dutifully records any reports from pilots of undesirable lights. But neither of these measures will be nearly as effective as enforcing the legal repercussions already in place around the world. The difficulty is that, in the wrong hands, a laser is the ultimate long-distance weapon - the source of the offence can be incredibly difficult to trace.

If the dangers are truly increasing, governments should reevaluate the commercial status of all laser devices and consider - as with other potential weapons - how to make the gadgets more difficult to buy even in the age of online shopping.

This post originally appeared on New Scientist. Image: flip619/Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.