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The Worrying Failure Of Australia's Ban On High-Power Laser Pointers

After aircraft were targeted with high-power laser pointers in 2008, Australia banned them. But the prohibition seems to have had an entirely different effect.

  • June 23, 2014

Back in 2008, a number of planes and helicopters flying over Sydney, Australia, suffered a series of coordinated attacks in which somebody attempted to blind pilots using laser pointers. The government acted swiftly and banned the possession and importation of laser pointers with a power output greater than 1 milliWatt.

Consequently, Australia has the most restrictive laser pointer laws in the world.

Similar problems have occurred in many other places where aircraft, motor vehicles, celebrities, sports men and women and law enforcement officers have all been targeted with lasers are varying power. An ongoing topic of debate in these places is how to tackle this kind of crime.

So an interesting question is whether the Australian approach has worked. Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Trevor Wheatley at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. He has used the Internet to buy a wide variety of laser pointers, had them sent from various parts of the world to Australia and then tested them to see whether they matched their advertised specifications and indeed whether they met the requirements laid down by Australian law.

And his conclusion is sobering. He says that few laser pointers measure up to their advertised specifications and most vastly exceed the 1 mW power level they are supposed to stay below. “Suppliers in this market have learnt how to bypass the prohibition,” he says.

Wheatley found his targets by entering the phrase “laser pointer 1 mW” into online shopping websites such as Google.com.au and eBay.com.au. In theory, these sites ought to obey Australian law because of their .com.au designation.

He got 44 different results: 17 from Australia, 13 from Hong Kong, 11 from China, two from the UK and one from the US. Of these, 20 of the devices produced red light, 18 produced green and six produced violet. Wheatley bought the lot.

Of these 44 laser pointers, he received 40 in the post without incident. However, customs officers intercepted three others and one never arrived. Customs measured the power of all three of the lasers it intercepted and found that two of them exceeded 1 mW. It kept these and sent on the remaining laser which had an output of less than 1 mW. In total, Wheatley received 41 lasers.

These devices turned out to be a rum bunch. All were advertised as having a power output of 1 mW or less but 11 turned out to labelled with a power output less than 5 mW and one was labelled less than 10 mW.

What’s more, many any of the lasers from international markets arrived in packages without any indication of what they contained, preventing customs officers from identifying them. “It would appear that the International suppliers are targeting a 5 mW restriction for laser pointers but advertising as 1 mW for the Australian market on the “.au” domain,” he says.

He then set up a straightforward testing apparatus to measure the actual power output of these devices. And the results are shocking. All but two of the lasers exceeded the 1 mW limit. And one red laser had a power output of 112 mW, two orders of magnitude greater than the limit. In general, he says that green and violet lasers represent the most significant hazard.

And neither is price a good guide to the power output. He bought the majority of the lasers for less than AU$20. However, the most expensive at over AU$80 was a surprise. “It was the only one of the entire sample that performed as claimed and was compliant with laser safety standards,” he says.

That’s a worrying study. It seems clear that the Australian government’s attempts to prevent high-power lasers from entering the country has failed. “The results indicate that if a consumer in Australia attempted to purchase a low cost compliant laser pointer in this manner, they would most likely not get one,” says Wheatley.

That’s a worry for consumers, law enforcement agencies and for any potential targets of laser pointers. “From a laser safety perspective: the one thing more hazardous than a correctly labelled high power laser pointer is a high power laser pointer labelled as safe,” says Wheatley.

It is also a salutary lesson to governments in other parts of the world. If laser pointers are a problem, then legislation of this kind is probably not the answer.

In the UK, for example, law enforcement teams have used infrared imaging cameras to identify the location of laser pointers aimed skywards so that the culprit can be caught by officers on the ground. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old received a five-month suspended sentence for recklessly endangering the lives of a police search helicopter crew.

Whatever the punishment, these results should serve to warn anyone thinking of buying a laser pointer on the Internet or otherwise. Be careful out there!

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1406.4924 : Laser Pointer Prohibition – Improving Safety Or Driving Misclassification

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