A growing safety concern for pilots and aircraft passengers is laser strikes, or the aiming of high-power laser pointers at aircraft. Laser strikes pose many dangers to pilots, including distraction during crucial moments in flight, temporary flash blindness, and in rare cases, permanent eye damage. Laser strikes have increased steadily in the past decade.

Lack of accurate and timely information for law enforcement officials means less than one percent of perpetrators is caught. It is difficult for pilots to see where a laser beam is coming from, and even more difficult for police officers to pinpoint the perpetrator’s location based on the pilot’s report. Certain military aircraft are equipped with sensors that can estimate perpetrators’ geographic location (geolocation), but it is costly and unrealistic to have them installed on every airplane. Other existing defenses against laser strikes are merely passive devices, such as laser-blocking goggles or cockpit window films that can actually degrade pilots’ vision.

The LASSOS display screen highlights the laser strike event in live sensor imagery on the left, and generates a 3D model of the laser streak in Google Earth on the right.

The only offensive measure of preventing laser strikes involves baiting perpetrators with police helicopters. In an area where laser strikes are frequent or anticipated, a police helicopter flies at a low altitude to deliberately attract laser strikes. When the helicopter is targeted, its pilots — who are equipped with night vision cameras — locate the perpetrators and alert ground law enforcement. This practice is not widely adopted; it requires significant manpower, and the equipment involved is expensive.

To address the present lack of effective laser strike mitigation systems, the Laser Aircraft Strike Suppression Optical System (LASSOS) was developed. The ground-based sensors provide persistent, automated protection for a high-risk volume of airspace, such as a final approach path, by quickly locating the origin of a laser strike and transmitting the coordinates to local law enforcement. This technology will enable law enforcement to launch a rapid and targeted response to a laser strike event, greatly increasing their chance of apprehending and prosecuting perpetrators.

The system works by capturing side-scattered laser light and tracing it back to the perpetrator’s location. When a laser is shone into the sky, a small fraction of the light is scattered by air molecules and aerosols, forming a residual streak in the laser’s path. Two or more high-sensitivity, low-noise, charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras image the scattered light from different vantage points, providing the geometric diversity needed to digitally reconstruct the laser streak in three dimensions. The geographic coordinates of the laser’s origin are calculated by tracing the laser streak down to a topographically accurate model of the Earth’s surface.

A feature of LASSOS that makes it particularly effective is its integration with Google Earth. As soon as a laser is detected by the cameras, a digital reconstruction of the streak appears on a Google Earth map in real time. This image summarizes the detection event, depicting the laser’s point of origin and most probable path. Within 30 seconds of the image being captured, LASSOS provides nearby members of law enforcement with the perpetrator’s GPS coordinates, nearest address, and the time of the incident.

LASSOS has the potential to diminish both immediate and future threats of laser strikes. Even if laser strikes do not directly hit an aircraft’s cockpit, police officers can use LASSOS to locate the perpetrators and detain them before they have the chance to cause serious harm. Furthermore, data gathered by LASSOS during an incident can be used as evidence in the prosecution of a perpetrator. The developers of LASSOS hope to increase air traffic safety by deterring future laser strikes.

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