Space & Innovation

Laser Attacks on Pilots Get Worse

In 2015, there were more than 6,600 incidents reported to the FAA, compared with 3,900 in 2014.

Airliners are being attacked more than ever by idiots with hand-held laser pointers who direct them into cockpits, distracting and endangering pilots as they land or take off. The number of such reports has skyrocketed in the past year, according to federal officials, but a technological solution to the problem remains elusive.

While laser pointers have been around for more than a decade, the threat to aircraft of laser targeting with small but increasingly powerful devices has achieved epidemic proportions within the last year, reported Aviation Week.

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In 2015, there were more than 6,600 incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration. The previous high was just over 3,900 incidents in 2014.

The worst areas for laser pointer attacks were Los Angeles, followed by Phoenix, Houston, Chicago and Las Vegas. At least 7 of 10 attacks occur between between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m.

In Europe, the problem has affected 24 different countries, and in 2014, laser "interference" strikes occurred at 57 locations, affecting 37 different air carriers, the magazine reported.

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The power of the lasers in laser pointers has increased, FAA officials said, making them more of a big safety risk. Part of the problem is that a tiny laser beam -- green, blue or red, may seem harmless when used inside. But the width of the beam increases as it travels from the source.

That means that by the time it reaches the aircraft, it can flood the entire cockpit with distracting light. Some pilots have been treated for eye injuries, according to Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman.

"Lasers can distract or temporarily blind pilots and could compromise the safety of passengers," Jones said. "It is a federal crime to shine a laser at an aircraft and violators may be subject to fines and time in jail. In addition to violating federal criminal law, shining a laser at an aircraft may result in FAA civil penalties of $11,000 or more. We investigate each incident and work closely with law enforcement to locate violators."

Johnson said the agency has looked at possible solutions to block the light, but the problem is that the same red, blue and green laser lights are also used to light obstacles such as towers and bridges, other aircraft and airports.

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"There are some potential issues there," Jones said.

R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the military is working on special in-flight goggles that would allow a pilot to fly an airplane without looking through the window. That is one possibility, but it hasn't made it to the commercial industry yet.

Special shades or electronic tinting devices might also work, he said. Until then, the only protection is looking the other way.

"That's why there's a co-pilot," Hansman said. "Hopefully both pilots are not looking the same way."

Technology moves faster every day. But commercial air travel hasn't changed as quickly as some industries in recent years. Experts project big changes in the next few decades, though, especially as aviation companies deploy significant innovations in design, material sciences and alternative energy sources. Here we take a look at some of changes on the horizon for commercial, cargo and experimental aircraft.

The N3-X concept aircraft, from Boeing and NASA, is based on a blended wing body (BWB) design intended to improve aerodynamics, fuel efficiency and noise emissions. The ultra-wide fuselage would greatly expand carrying capacity for commercial flights.

Developed by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the D8 "Double Bubble" aircraft would be used for domestic flights and is designed to fly at Mach 0.74 carrying 180 passengers in a coach cabin roomier than that of a Boeing 737-800. The D8 could enter service as soon as 2030, NASA says.

From Lockheed Martin, this concept design for a future supersonic aircraft is focused on reducing emissions and creating a quieter boom. A quieter craft would allow supersonic flights over land, where they are currently prohibited.

Meanwhile, over on the cargo plane tarmac, the GIGAbay concept envisions a ginormous aircraft powered by four hybrid fuel/electric engines, with supplemental energy provided by hydrogen fuel cells, wind generators and solar panels. The cargo area of the GIGAbay design is so large it could carry other jumbo aircraft, or even mobile field hospitals.

Powered by two superconducting electric motors, the concept plane known as the VoltAir (get it?) is a proposed all-electric airliner out of Europe. The engines would draw from next-generation lithium ion batteries -- really big ones -- that would be simply swapped out between flights.

Some cutting-edge technologies on the horizon are actually modifications of existing designs that have been around for more than a century. To wit, the illustration above imagines the closed-wing "PrandtlPlane" design applied to commercial passenger aircraft. Closed-wing planes have smaller wingspans than traditional aircraft, relative to fuselage size, allowing larger planes to operate out of smaller airports.

Another sort of hybrid, the E-Thrust design -- from Rolls-Royce and several European partners -- uses a combination of gas-turbine engines and battery-powered fans. The jet engines would only kick in when needed, similar to gas/electric hybrid cars. The fans would also be used, on descent, as built-in windmills to recharge the onboard batteries.

And from the ultralight division, we have the Solar Impulse 2, the latest iteration of the world's most advanced solar-powered, single-seat aircraft. The Swiss team behind the project plans to circumnavigate the planet in 2015, using a team of pilots flying in shifts over the course of about five months.

Finally, from the designer who brought us the GIGAbay cargo plane, the mighty Sky Whale also subscribes to the concept that bigger equals better -- and greener. The Sky Whale is a largely theoretical vision for a passenger plane that could seat 755 passengers on three floors, using a combination of alternative power sources. The upshot? More passengers per flight means fewer flights, and fewer emissions.