Using ground sensors to defend aircraft against laser strikes

Cameras that detect sources of laser beam attacks on aircraft may lessen dangers for pilots

by Erin Lee | Communications and Community Outreach Office

The test team with one of the LASSOS sensors on the roof of B-building includes, left to right, Emily Clemons, Tom Reynolds, and Brad Crowe of the Air Traffic Control Systems Group, and Erin Tomlinson, Rich Westhoff, Brian Saar, Michael Joffe, and John Flint of the Laser Technology and Applications Group.The test team with one of the LASSOS sensors on the roof of B-building includes, left to right, Emily Clemons, Tom Reynolds, and Brad Crowe of the Air Traffic Control Systems Group, and Erin Tomlinson, Rich Westhoff, Brian Saar, Michael Joffe, and John Flint of the Laser Technology and Applications Group. Photo: Glen Cooper


A growing safety concern for pilots and aircraft passengers is laser strikes, or the aiming of high-power laser pointers at aircraft. Laser strikes pose many dangers to pilots, including distraction during crucial moments in flight, temporary flash blindness, and in rare cases, permanent eye damage. Laser strikes have increased steadily in the last decade and can be criminally motivated, but they are more commonly pranks or unintentional.

Although perpetrators of laser strikes are punishable by federal, state, and local laws in the United States, lack of accurate and timely information for law-enforcement officials means less than one percent of perpetrators are ever caught. It is difficult for pilots to see where a laser beam is coming from, and even more difficult for police officers to pinpoint the perpetrator's location based on the pilot's report. Certain military aircraft are equipped with sensors that can estimate perpetrators' geographic location (geolocation), but it is costly and unrealistic to have them installed on every airplane. Other existing defenses against laser strikes are merely passive devices, such as laser-blocking goggles or cockpit window films that can actually degrade pilots' vision.

The only offensive measure of preventing laser strikes involves baiting perpetrators with police helicopters. In an area where laser strikes are frequent or anticipated, a police helicopter flies at a low altitude to deliberately attract laser strikes. When the helicopter is targeted, its pilots who are equipped with night vision cameras locate the perpetrators and alert ground law enforcement. However, this practice is not widely adopted; it requires significant manpower and the equipment involved can cost as much as $250,000. "It's not ideal," said Richard Westhoff from the Laser Technology and Applications Group. "You really have to put people in harm's way to do that."

To address the present lack of effective laser strike mitigation systems, the Laser Technology and Applications and Air Traffic Control Systems Groups at MIT Lincoln Laboratory have teamed up to develop the Laser Aircraft Strike Suppression Optical System (LASSOS). LASSOS is a ground-based sensor system that can accurately identify the probable location of a perpetrator of a laser strike and immediately notify law enforcement.



"These sensors can provide persistent, automated protection for a high-risk volume of airspace, such as a final approach path, by quickly locating the origin of a laser strike and transmitting the coordinates to local law enforcement. This technology will enable law enforcement to launch a rapid and targeted response to a laser strike event, greatly increasing their chance of apprehending and prosecuting perpetrators," said Tom Reynolds, a member of the development team and the associate leader of the Air Traffic Control Systems Group.

The system works by capturing side-scattered laser light and tracing it back to the perpetrator's location. When a laser is shone into the sky, a small fraction of the light is scattered by air molecules and aerosols, forming a residual streak in the laser's path. Two or more high-sensitivity, low-noise charge-coupled device cameras image the scattered light from different vantage points, providing the geometric diversity needed to digitally reconstruct the laser streak in three dimensions. The geographic coordinates of the laser's origin are calculated by tracing the laser streak down to a topographically accurate model of the Earth's surface.

A feature of LASSOS that makes it particularly effective is its integration with Google Earth. As soon as a laser is detected by the cameras, a digital reconstruction of the streak appears on a Google Earth map in real-time. This image summarizes the detection event, depicting the laser's point-of-origin and most probable path through the night sky. Within 30 seconds of the image being captured, LASSOS provides nearby members of law enforcement with the perpetrator's GPS coordinates, nearest address, and the time of the incident. This information allows officers to rapidly intervene.

The LASSOS display screen highlights the laser strike event in live sensor imagery on the left and generates a 3D model of the laser streak in Google Earth (right).The LASSOS display screen highlights the laser strike event in live sensor imagery on the left and generates a 3D model of the laser streak in Google Earth (right). Image courtesy of the research team.

LASSOS has the potential to diminish both immediate and future threats of laser strikes. Even if lasers strikes do not directly hit an aircraft's cockpit, police officers can use LASSOS to locate the perpetrators and detain them before they have the chance to cause serious harm. Furthermore, data gathered by LASSOS during an incident can be used as evidence in the prosecution of a perpetrator. The developers of LASSOS hope to increase air traffic safety by deterring future laser strikes.

"This technology will significantly increase laser strike origin detection and perpetrator apprehension. As culprits are readily apprehended and prosecuted, the appeal of laser strikes as a crime with low risk of detection will decline," said Brian Saar, principal investigator in the Laboratory's LASSOS team and an assistant group leader in the Laser Technology and Applications Group.

The system prototype has already demonstrated its speed and accuracy in several tests. For one test trial, LASSOS's geolocation ability was tested at a distance of nine nautical miles to simulate the typical length of a final approach path when an aircraft is most vulnerable to lasing. One sensor was placed on top of the B Building at Lincoln Laboratory and another on the Flight Test Facility at Hanscom Air Force Base. Testers shone high-power laser beams (of the type used during lasing events) from a baseball field nine nautical miles away in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and were geolocated by LASSOS in less than 30 seconds. The system was so accurate that it could distinguish whether the laser beams came from first, second, or third base on the field.

In this image of the Tewksbury, Massachusetts, baseball field that was used as a test site, the three colored circles indicate the actual locations from which researchers aimed laser beams, and the matching colored diamonds indicate the locations identified by LASSOS as the sources of the beams. These three tests to identify the sources of laser-beam strikes demonstrated LASSOS's geolocation accuracy of less than 5 meters at a 9-nautical-mile range.
In this image of the Tewksbury, Massachusetts, baseball field that was used as a test site, the three colored circles indicate the actual locations from which researchers aimed laser beams, and the matching colored diamonds indicate the locations identified by LASSOS as the sources of the beams. These three tests to identify the sources of laser-beam strikes demonstrated LASSOS's geolocation accuracy of less than 5 meters at a 9-nautical-mile range. Image courtesy of the research team.


Considering LASSOS's promising performance and versatile capabilities, researchers believe that in the future the system could be used to protect other targets of laser strikes, including ships, automobiles, and even individual people.

Posted September 2017

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