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How Dangerous Are Laser Pointers?

In a list of unintended consequences, the proliferation of the inexpensive laser pointer ranks right near the top. Flourishing in the 1990s as a way to highlight information in a business presentation -- and often as a diversion for a playful kitty -- the laser pointer has become a public nuisance. Its use has morphed into some kind of dangerous game, as users now point them at aircraft, blinding pilots and forcing flights to re-route. The penalty for this felony: a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 USD fine.

By the time laser light reaches a cockpit at 1,000 feet (305 meters), it’s no longer a pinpoint. The light explodes when it hits the windshield, resembling a floodlight and showering the cockpit with blinding light that can disorient pilots. In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration reported 3,894 laser incidents in the United States. According to the FBI, “pointing a laser at an aircraft is not a harmless prank. We take this seriously.”

A fine line between light and dark:

  • A laser emits light that is amplified by an emission of electromagnetic radiation. Laser pointers are relatively weak and cannot exceed 5 milliwatts, or five one-thousandths of a watt.
  • The idea of the laser originated with Albert Einstein, but he never invented one. In 1960, Theodore Maiman of Hughes Aircraft used a ruby as a lasing medium to create what some consider to be the first laser.
  • The airline pilots union in the United Kingdom called for handheld pointers to be classified as offensive weapons, and banned, after the dazed pilot of a Virgin Atlantic flight was forced to return his plane to Heathrow in 2016.
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