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Laser Pointers and Private Drones Used for Recreation are Endangering Lives

Did you know that pranksters pointing lasers pointers at aircraft can injure pilots, or that unregulated private drones are a rising menace? The number of laser incidents affecting aircraft has risen despite stricter laws and penalties.

Meanwhile, no legal penalties have been imposed on recreational drone users, although hundreds of drones have flown perilously close to manned aircraft in the United States, per Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone (CSD).

Powerful Laser Pointers Risk Harm and Disorient Pilots

While hand-held lasers may be the size of fountain pens, technology has made them both cheap and powerful. Lasers costing as little as $1, that can have a power of up to 700 MW, are easily obtained. Green lasers are far more powerful than the red ones used during classroom or business presentations.

They can have a 2 -mile range, which is sufficient to target aircraft, which pranksters sometimes do for the sport.  Although widely available, lasers come with no warnings about the dire consequences of using them wrongly.

For aircraft pilots, the disorienting laser beam is magnified as the light hits the plexiglass window and disperses inside the cockpit. Not only can laser beams cause temporary blindness, but they can also incapacitate and seriously injure pilots of helicopters or airplanes.

A direct hit can burn the cornea. A CNN article by Rene Marsh and Ben Brumfield revealed there were thousands of laser incidents that disturbed or injured pilots flying in the U.S. in 2013. Pilots continue to be injured by laser pointers domestically and internationally, and while a plane or helicopter crash has not yet occurred, its likelihood is growing with the increasing incidence of outdoor laser pointer use.

There were 283 laser pointer incidents reported in 2005; that number rose to 3,960 by 2013. Per Erin Dooley’s ABC News article of July 22, 2015, while more incidents are being reported, hundreds are not. Therefore, it is not so reassuring that the number of incidents reported in 2014 fell to 3,894 from the previous year.

Official Response to Curb Pranksters Using Laser Pointers

The FBI offers rewards for tips revealing the identities of the pranksters. Authorities can locate the source of the laser incident with squad cars aided by a helicopter and dispatcher, but timing is key. Few arrests have been made, relative to the number of incidents.

Arrested pranksters face a fine of $250,000 and a possible jail term. Interfering with the operation of an aircraft is a federal crime punishable by a maximum prison term of 20 years. A growing number of states and local governments have also enacted their own laws and penalties for illegal use of laser pointers.

But there is no wide knowledge of the penalties. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association believes more can be done, and advocates mandatory warnings on the lasers.

A Rising Drone Menace Free of Legal Restraints in the U.S. for Recreational Users

The CSD recently reported there were 519 incidents in the U.S. between August 21, 2015, and January 31, 2016, three times more than were reported during the same period the previous year.

The center also found that 36 percent of the drone- flying incidents reported during the 2015-16 period were close encounters. As reported by Brandi Jewett in The Grand Forks Herald, close encounters are characterized as when:

a drone passes within 500 feet of an aircraft

.   the reported incident indicates the possibility of a mid-air collision

    a drone passed dangerously close to an aircraft.

Unlike the situation with laser pointers, there is a regulatory vacuum concerning drone flying for recreational purposes, reported Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post. The FAA cannot impose restrictions on recreational drone owners because of a law passed in 2012 to protect model airplane enthusiasts.

As a result, recreational drone flyers are not required to register their aircraft, obtain licenses, or be trained, despite the potential danger. The FAA has published guidelines to protect air traffic from drones. Consumer drones must fly below an altitude of 400 feet and at least 5 miles away from airports to comply with the FAA’s guidelines. However, those standards are widely flouted.

International incidents caused by drones are also occurring, while official response lags behind. In April 2016, a pilot landing at London’s Heathrow airport with a plane carrying 132 passengers reported that a drone struck his flight.

Even though powerful and ubiquitous laser pointers are even being shined at footballers and other people on the ground, the law has not kept up with the danger. As with the domestic challenge, international laws and guidelines need to become more effective. What laws exist continue to vary among different countries.

A good source for learning more about this subject is the University of Missouri’s Missouri Drone Journalism Program, which is keeping track of domestic and international developments. A similar university- supported resource for laser pointer laws and regulations is not currently available, but provides an incomplete list.

Worried observers believe an eventual, serious collision involving a private drone is inevitable. Tougher government action is needed to reduce the menace of wrongfully used drones and laser pointers.

In addition to targeting users, governments should penalize their manufacture and sale without product warnings to increase public knowledge of the risks involved in their use. Only then, will aircraft pilots and the unsuspecting public be better protected from their wrongful use?