Laser light shows and aviation safety

 

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Lasers have been in the news in late 2004 and early 2005, due to incidents in the U.S. where laser beams were aimed at airplanes. (This is discussed in great depth on the Lasers and aviation safety page.)

None of these incidents appear to have been from light shows. This is to be expected, since the laser light show industry is the most heavily regulated of any outdoor user of lasers in airspace.

Shows are designed for aviation safety

Outdoor show producers take many steps to ensure aviation safety. If possible, they aim the lasers onto nearby buildings or structures, so the beams are terminated (stay within the show area). Any unterminated beams are aimed away from airports and flight paths. Control measures such as airplane spotters are used to turn off the laser if any aircraft approach unterminated beams. The goal is to keep all laser light away from pilots and aircraft, no matter how bright or dim the light.

It was not always like this. In the mid-1990s, U.S. regulators (both FDA and FAA) approved lasers in the flight path of Las Vegas's main airport. At the time, all parties thought the only concern with planes was to keep the beam power at an eye-safe level. But pilot complaints made it clear that distraction, glare and even temporary flashblindness were valid concerns during critical flight phases.

As a result of the mid-1990s episodes, the outdoor shows in Las Vegas were ended. Representatives from the International Laser Display Association worked closely with government, industry and aviation groups such as the ANSI Z136 and SAE G-10T committees, to develop safety techniques for all outdoor laser users.

Laser shows have an excellent safety record

Since that time, professionally-run laser shows have had an excellent safety record. ILDA members understand the potential hazards. They support the recent crackdown on irresponsible use of laser pointers.

ILDA also supports the responsible reporting of potential laser hazards. Some inaccurate or sensationalistic reports have appeared in the news media and elsewhere. Everyone, including pilots, law enforcement, and the public should understand the very limited circumstances under which lasers could present a hazard.

And they should understand how laser professionals working on shows, at observatories and in industries nationwide, are working to keep skies safe and pilots reassured.

Frequently asked questions
 

  Can laser shows and other uses be done within the FAA's zones?

  Yes, lasers can be used with the FAA Laser-Free, Critical and Sensitive Zones in two cases. One is if the beam power and characteristics are lower (safer) than the limits for a particular zone. The other is if "mitigation" is done using effective control measures. This allows high laser power levels to be used, as long as aircraft are not illuminated. In both cases, those using lasers outdoors must report their usage to the FAA, using Advisory Circular 70-1 [caution: 2.2 MB download]. The FAA will review the provided data and determine whether or not they will object to the laser use.
 

  What control measures are available?

  The following are some "physical, procedural and automated control means to ensure that aircraft operations will not be exposed to levels of illumination greater than the maximum irradiance level considered as acceptable in each affected flight zone:"

  • Physical beam stops used to prevent laser light from being directed into protected airspace. Example: Barriers surrounding laser show bounce mirrors, so that if the laser misses the mirror, it does not go off into airspace.

  • Adjusting beam divergence and output power to meet the appropriate irradiance distance. In other words, making the beam wider and/or less powerful, so it does not exceed the laser power for a particular FAA zone.

  • Directing beams into a specific area. Example: Aiming beams away from an airport so they do not enter a particular zone.

  • Using airspace observers (spotters), who can shut down the beam if they spot an aircraft. This topic is a complex one, which depends on observer abilities, distance to planes, aircraft visibility, communications to ensure shutdown occurs, etc.
         At Walt Disney World, EPCOT's nightly laser show relies partially on laser spotters to keep the show safe and legal. Incidentally, in the past, EPCOT has been buzzed by small planes during the show, causing the beams to be prematurely turned off and thus spoiling the show for the ground-based observers.

  • Automated detection/avoidance systems, which shut down the laser or move the beam in case a plane is detected. These are complex, must be proven to work, and must be approved.

 
  Is it true that laser shows are the only laser users who are regulated in airspace?

  Yes. Of all outdoor laser uses, the only one which is legally regulated is laser shows. All others are requested, but not required, to submit to FAA review. Here's how this works:

Only three laser uses are regulated by the U.S. federal government: medical, construction and laser shows. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires outdoor laser show operators to submit their shows to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for review. If the FAA objects, then FDA will not give permission (called a "variance") for the show.

Normally, the FAA has no authority or jurisdiction over outdoor lasers. Anyone can shine lasers into the air without seeking FAA approval. The FAA certainly encourages people to file reports (using Advisory Circular 70-1 [caution: 2.2 MB download]). The FAA will review the reports and will send back a letter saying whether they object to the laser use.

However, no one is required to file this report with the FAA, and there are no penalties if you ignore an FAA letter of objection. The only exception is, of course, laser light shows. This is because if the FAA objects, then the FDA will not give its permission (variance).

This is one reason why legal laser shows, those reported to the FDA and FAA, have had an excellent safety record since new requirements were developed in the late 1990s.

 

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  This page last updated: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 09:03 AM

 
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