In a previous life, I was a DJ and the lasers were one of my favorite parts of the nightclub (aside from the music). I have always been enamored by these amazing devices that shoot coherent beams of light out of them. LASER is an acronym meaning Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation and what many may not know is the predecessor of the laser was the MASER, which means Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. A MASER differed from the laser in that it emitted a coherent beam of electromagnetic waves and, until 1998, scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories called the laser an optical maser. Enough of the history lesson, we are here to talk about recent advances in laser-diodes, the rapid drop in their prices, and what implications this may have on our military and aerospace markets, including both private and commercial aircraft.
Until recently, lasers in the one-watt range required a large tabletop setup and cost thousands of dollars; but, due to advances and price drops in the laser-diode market, a new breed of powerful lasers are being produced. I am pleased to introduce you to Wicked Lasers’ “Arctic”, a handheld, one-watt, class IV laser. You may be saying to yourself, “Pfft one watt, that’s not much power. What harm could that do?” Just for a point of comparison: A laser pointer, the kind used in everyday meetings, range in power from 1 milliwatt (mW) to 5mW and are relatively harmless. On the other hand, a one-watt laser can instantly burn skin, start fires, cause “immediate and irreversible retinal damage,” and prolonged exposure to the 445 nanometer (nm) wavelength of the blue-light laser can affect one’s perception of the color green – meaning you don’t see green anymore. So what does this mean for the aerospace industry?
Although prohibited by the United Nations in 1995, laser devices have been used, illegally, to temporarily blind pilots while in flight. (The Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons prohibits “laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices.”) With the invention of smaller and more powerful laser devices, a larger threat presents itself. This new class of laser can cause immediate and devastating blindness in a fraction of the time that previous lasers were capable of inflicting a lesser degree of harm.
Should this kind of device be classified as a weapon? The “Arctic” is sold on the Internet for $300 to any Joe Schmo on the street. This geek loves leaps in technology as much as the next, but is wondering: When is a laser powerful and portable enough to be labeled as the fabled “ray-gun”?