AFRL, FAA work to keep aircrews safe from lasers

  • Published
  • By John Schutte
  • Human Effectiveness Directorate
The Air Force Research Laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate (AFRL/HE) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are working together to improve aircrew safety in situations where lasers are carelessly or maliciously pointed at aircraft. 

A team of optics, human factors and computer specialists has been quietly laying the groundwork for this unique research project. The fruit of their efforts is a one-of-a-kind laser positioning system integrated with a Boeing 737 flight simulator at the FAA's Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, Okla. 

The system realistically mimics a laser flashed at an aircraft cockpit from the ground. Such concentrated beams of low-power laser light are not physically harmful, but can distract and temporarily incapacitate aircrew, said Major Laura Barnes, deputy chief of AFRL/HE's Directed Energy Bioeffects Division, Optical Radiation Branch (HEDO). 

Pilots are particularly vulnerable during takeoffs and landings, when an aircraft is closer to the ground and a pilot's visual and cognitive systems are already heavily loaded. 

The 4-axes-of-motion system uses fiber-optic cables to transport a laser beam from its source to the simulator. A computer tracks the simulator's flight path and correlates it with the ground-based laser's simulated position so that from the pilot's perspective, the laser maintains a constant ground location, said 2nd Lt. Paul La Tour, the HEDO computer engineer who designed the software along with his supervisor Capt. Daren Chauvin. 

The number of laser incidents involving aircraft is rising each year, coinciding with ready availability of inexpensive commercial laser devices, said Barnes, an optometrist with a doctorate in physiological optics. 

Lasers are widely used in the entertainment industry, by astronomers and by amateur science enthusiasts, Barnes said. These users typically are well-intentioned but may not always consider the inadvertent hazards of lasers. 

"There is a real threat out there both on the military and civilian side and the Air Force is proactively addressing it," said Barnes, who is based at AFRL/HE's site at Brooks City-Base, Texas. "We want to continue improving laser eye protection for our pilots but we're looking for new training methods, too." 

A hand-held laser pointer directed at an approaching aircraft from two miles away can cause windshield glare, after-images and flash blindness--temporarily impaired vision caused by an intense flash of light--leaving a pilot unable to see an airport's runway and surrounding landscape. The effects are similar to those caused by a camera flash or oncoming bright vehicle headlights.
With eye-safe lasers integrated into a flight simulator, researchers can monitor pilots' reactions and recommend appropriate countermeasures, Barnes said.
A congressional report issued in January 2005 cites laser-specific laws, eye protection for pilots, laser-free zones near airports and public education as ways to reduce the laser threat to aviation safety. Thanks to input by AFRL and FAA, congressional legislation has been introduced to make it a federal offense to point a laser at an aircraft.
AFRL/HE and FAA are teamed via a $10 million memorandum of understanding that allows the organizations to share personnel, funds and resources including FAA's state-of-the-art simulator. 

"We have access to a large frame full-motion base simulator where we can identify threat levels," Barnes said, "and the cockpit procedures and countermeasures developed will apply to military and commercial aircraft. So it's a win-win situation." 

The collaboration is rooted in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) G-10 subcommittee, which recommends safety procedures for aviation. That's where Barnes and HEDO senior research optometrist Dr. Leon N. McLin met FAA chief scientist Dr. Archie Dillard, who has a doctorate in behavioral psychology and has been assigned to the simulation facility for 22 years.
"The FAA needed laser research in the cockpit at about the same time we wanted to transition our research into operational scenarios," Barnes said, "so it worked out great."
McLin is principal investigator for the human testing phase in which researchers will monitor Air Force pilots' reactions to laser illumination during simulated flights, then use the data to generate safety procedures and to prepare for further in-flight testing.
"The Air Force has known about this threat for a long time and we've addressed the threat in many ways," Barnes said. "Now we are answering questions about visual effects and optimizing cockpit procedures." 

Dr. Dillard believes partnering with AFRL has been invaluable for FAA. 

"They have the technical expertise that's just not available anywhere else," said Dr. Dillard. "We're looking forward to a long-term partnership."