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SPIE Professional July 2016

Lasers aimed at aircraft: Not a bright idea

The Canadian government has launched a social media campaign drawing attention to the danger posed by people who point lasers at aircraft.

The campaign, backed by airline pilots, astronomers, and laser safety experts, encourages people to learn more about the responsible use of laser pointers — and the use of lasers in astronomy.

A laser pointer’s intense beam of light can temporarily blind or distract pilots.

Pointing these lasers into the cockpits of aircraft is a “reckless,” act that puts lives at risk, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said, and those who do so face criminal charges that could lead to $100,000 in fines and five years in prison.

In 2015, there were some 600 laser strikes directed at aircraft in Canada, a 32% increase from the previous year, and an eight-fold increase from 2008. In the USA, there are an average of 18 laser illumination incidents that affect aircraft each day. Europe has also seen an increase in laser-beam incidents, with the UK alone reporting about 1300 incidents a year.

Transport Canada’s social media campaign, “Not a Bright Idea,” revolves around several videos and the #NotABrightIdea hashtag on Twitter. It also seeks to redirect people who are curious about lasers into learning more about their use as tools for astronomers.


The Royal Astronomy Society of Canada said on its Twitter feed that it “strongly supports” Garneau’s call for responsible laser use. The organization created a webpage with information and recommendations on green laser pointer usage.

The Air Canada Pilots Association also lauded the initiative, saying that the greatest danger to pilots — and by extension, to passengers and the general public near airports — is when a laser is pointed at an aircraft at the most critical phases of flight, either taking off or landing.

“An aircraft on final approach at 1000 feet has less than one minute before it reaches the threshold of the runway and touches down,” said Capt. Ed Bunoza, chair of the association’s flight safety division. “For one or both pilots to be temporarily blinded at this critical phase of flight is our biggest concern.”

Over the long term, Bunoza said pilots are also worried that being exposed to a laser strike “might lead to vision impairment or damage that could effectively prevent them from pursuing their career.”

Garneau, a former pilot and astronaut, noted that some Canadians aiming their lasers into aircraft cockpits are doing it “because they think it’s fun.

“I don’t think people realize that they could end up in jail for as much as five years,” Garneau said. “This is not only reckless, it’s not only a stupid act – it’s also criminal.”


An Ottawa firm is offering one solution to pilots worried about laser strikes: specially engineered glasses that reflect the green light emitted by most handheld pointers.

Iridian Spectral Technologies launched its line of laser reflection glasses earlier this year after being approached by a coalition of aviation safety officials concerned about the dramatic rise of laser incidents.

The company says its multi-layer dielectric thin-film aviator glasses, which retail for about $329, provide high transmittance with deep, narrow blocking to maximize laser reflection while minimizing the impact on light levels and color discrimination for the remainder of the visible spectral region.


Photonics for a Better World at SPIEOptical and photonics technologies can ensure the safety of food, bring inexpensive and efficient alternative energy to rural and developing areas, enable instant communications, and otherwise bring tangible social, environmental, health, and economic gains to humanity.

Do you have a story to contribute about the role of light-based technologies in bettering the human condition?

Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

Read more articles and blog posts celebrating the many ways that optics and photonics are applied in creating a better world at PhotonicsForaBetterWorld.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201607.02

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