8 Aug. 2007

Protesters With Frikkin' Laser Beams!?

A dangerous new craze reveals a major flaw in safety and security for the upcoming APEC meeting in Sydney. With Black Hawk helicopters now buzzing the city's rooftops, the potential for a major accident is huge.

In December 2004, a laser beam tracked a US commercial jet on approach to a Cleveland airport:
The pilot of the aircraft said the green laser light came into the cockpit and tracked with the plane for several seconds as it closed in on Cleveland Hopkins Airport at a speed of 186 km/h.

"It didn't just splash and vanish, which made the pilot believe he was being tracked," said FBI agent Robert Hawk.

The incident occurred late on Monday December 27, as the jet, with 25 crew and passengers on board, flew over the suburbs of the Ohio city and is the latest in a string of similar incidents reported to US authorities in the past 12 months.

The FBI has traced the beam to a residential area of the mid-western city, but has still not yet been able to determine if the incident was a prank or something else.
There were at least six other investigations underway in the USA at the time. In June this year, an Adelaide man shone a laser beam at a police helicopter. Police found a loaded rifle and a silencer in the man's car.

Last Friday, a laser beam targeted a Qantas flight into Darwin:
The plane, on a flight from Sydney, was carrying 185 passengers.

Mr Quartermain refused to say if the pilot was injured, but said he travelled as a passenger on the return leg to Sydney as a precautionary measure.

He has now been referred to the airline's doctor for assessment.
The Aussie press is generally not making a big thing of it, but this Herald Sun story blows the lid:
More than 100 incidents of aircraft being tagged by laser beams have been reported by pilots nationally since January last year.

"People . . . have been caught using lasers to tag aircraft in every state in Australia," federal Transport Department spokesman Jeff Lamb said.

Victoria Police helicopters have also been the target of laser beams.

"It's not something we usually talk about because we don't want to encourage it," a police spokeswoman said.

Aviation sources said authorities were also reluctant to talk about the problem as "it exposes a major flaw in airport safety and security".

Pen-sized laser lights, commonly used in surveying equipment or by professional and hobby astronomers, can project beams up to 5km and cost as little as $25...

A Civil Aviation Safety Authority advisory circulated after the most recent attacks at Melbourne Airport said protecting pilots against lasers had become a serious safety factor.

"Lasers can produce a beam of light of such intensity that permanent damage to human tissue, in particular the retina of the eye, can be caused instantaneously, even at distances of over 10km," CASA's advisory said.
As Darryl at The Orstrahyun blogged yesterday, the RAAF is also guilty of recklessly using laser beams, and there is a lot of military interest in laser technology:
This page on laser safety makes 'class four lasers', as cited in the above story, sound more like a focused light energy weapon than simply a jet fighter's targeting tool:
Class 4 lasers are harmful to eyes and skin, even diffuse reflections are hazardous. Class four lasers may also present a fire hazard. (Examples: laser welding machines, laser canons)
That laser safety page also says that even being in the vicinity of an activated laser as powerful as a 'class four' can be very unhealthy, even if it's not burning through your retinas.
Darryl's post described an incident in May when two RAAF jets "accidentally" targetted vehicles north of Newscaste:
The RAAF says two jets from the Williamtown base were flying at 20,000 feet on May 28 as part of a training exercise.

Weapons guidance lasers were pointed at a car at the intersection of the Lakes Way and Seal Rocks road near Forster, but eight other vehicles drove past the same spot.

Air Commodore Geoff Brown says it was a computer malfunction but the risk to the public was remote.

"The biggest risk of major injury is if you are actually inside that laser spot and looking directly back up at the aeroplane," he said.

"That's why we think it's extremely remote."
But it now seems like at least one innocent civilian was injured:
"The RAAF admits it is possible people may have been injured in the incident... The RAAF says people who may have been affected can call a hotline on 1800 000 655."
I'm betting some poor sap has been lying in hospital for months while the police suppress the story and the Air Force do a long investigation. Why the delay?
Air Commodore Geoff Brown says the matter had to be thoroughly investigated before information could be released.

"It took us actually a while to realise the laser had fired, if you can say that," he said.
So how much did this crappy, faulty, dangerous weapons system cost Aussie taxpayers? This is just another example of how our nation is being subsumed by the US military industrial complex.

I think that rather than ignoring this story, the media has a responsibility to ask government officials what preventative measures are being put in place to ensure public safety during APEC.

UPDATE: Fairfax picks up the story with an interesting new angle:
Darwin International Airport, which is less than 15km from the city centre, shares a site and runway with Darwin's RAAF base.

Mr Quartermaine would not comment on the possibility of a military-grade laser being involved in the incident.
Apparently the US military is doing tests on how pilots react to such beams. Per that Herald Sun story:
The US Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration last week launched a study into the reactions of pilots exposed to lasers.
What if the military in Darwin were doing the same thing, but aimed at the wrong plane? Woops?