So nobody has downed an airplane with a blinding laser beam, yet. But the task could get a little easier, if research at the University of New Hampshire pans out.For decades, the world's militaries have been developing laser "dazzlers" -- bright pulses of coherent light, meant to render someone sightless, temporarily. The Chinese (and, maybe, the North Koreans) have working models. And while U.S. research has dampened, ever since the Clinton administration signed an international protocol banning the blinding weapons, work on the devices never stopped completely.In recent years, the Air Force Research Laboratory put together a pair of laser spotlights that "tended to dazzle" people in their path, according to lab spokesman Rich Garcia. "It was like they were looking into the headlights of a car late at night." But the dazzlers were either too strong running the risk of permanent eye damage, at some distances -- or they were "put into mothballs" after being outpaced by newer technology.The Air Force remains interested in dazzlers, Garcia says. But the problem (from a military point of view) is that the devices, as currently configured, are pretty easy to stop. Special goggles can filter out the laser light. New-fangled anti-laser contact lenses might even be able to do the trick, as well.A group of scientists at the University of New Hampshire may have found a way to get around the specs and the contacts, however. With money from the Defense Department-backed Non-lethal Technology Innovation Center (NTIC), they've developed a laser than can sense the defenses, and adapt to overcome them.The machine sends out an inital laser pulse, to look for where a lens is, and how much it's being shielded. The reflected glint from the lens gives away both its position and its level of protection. The device then changes the power and direction of its second blast, so that the lens is overwhelmed."It someone puts on sunglasses on, it measures the reflection," says NTIC director Glenn Shwaery, "and then it gives off a brighter flash, to compensate."But, Shwaery wants to make clear, "this has nothing to do with shining lasers into cockpits... It's not the intent of this project whatsoever."Instead, the idea is for police to use the dazzler, now in an early lab prototype, to disorient a perp, or for a military flier to disrupt the mechanical lens on an incoming missile's tracking system.Besides, to zap a jet or a helicopter, you "don't need anything that complicated," Shwaery observes. Kids having been using off-the-shelf laser pointers for years to wig pilots out.Not that Shwaery wouldn't be interested in something that could take down a plane. In an (as yet unfunded) request for proposal, NTIC asks for ideas on "NL [non-lethal] disruption of aircraft. Investigate techniques to non-destructively force the aircraft to land or render it ineffectual as an asset when on the ground. Techniques shall not cause the catastrophic failure of aircraft in flight."THERE'S MORE: Over at Salon, Patrick Smith tries to put to bed -- once and for all -- the tin-hat notion that the recent round of cockpit illuminations is somehow a terrorist plot.
To accept the proposition that terrorists are behind these events is to assume that gangs of al-Qaida operatives are hunkered down in neighborhoods throughout America, openly risking capture in their attempts to test out obvious, traceable devices that even when used accurately are exceptionally unlikely to bring forth an accident. I submit that terrorists do not undertake operations with such high probabilities of exposure and failure. They have little to gain and everything to lose. With respect to bang for the buck, why waste time with lasers when you could hide in a patch of trees with an assault rifle and inflict greater damage?AND MORE: "Geeks, kids and copycats armed with a new type of laser pointer appear to be behind increasing reports of laser beams pointed at commercial aircraft," according to MSNBC.
Experts - from the FBI to those in the laser industry - believe the most recent incidents do not stem from illicit use of powerful military laser weapons or the less powerful lasers used by the entertainment industry, both of which require high power supplies and bulky cooling mediums.Rather, they think the mischief is being caused by laser pointers that project a green beam of light that have recently been imported from China and Russia. They are increasingly available on the Internet.The hand-held lasers, powered by batteries, project a green beam that can be 50 times brighter than the more common red-beam pointers and can travel 8,000 to 10,000 feet into the sky.Although the federal Food and Drug Administration limits the power of laser pointers, there are several Web sites and electronic bulletin boards that explain how laser enthusiasts can easily double the power of the green lasers, which sell for as little as $50 and as much as $600. One company boasts it can increase the power of its green pointer so the beam of light can travel 25,000 feet into the sky.Enthusiasts visiting one Web bulletin board said they use the laser pointers to identify stars, create simple holographs and even burn holes into plastic cups. One participant said he used his laser pointer to help his family spot a UFO.AND MORE: The genius who lased a couple of planes over Jersey has finally been arrested.