Page last updated at 16:06 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 17:06 UK

Police fight back on laser threat

By Tom Symonds
Transport Correspondent, BBC News


Tom Symonds flies in an anti-laser police helicopter - report contains images of flashing lasers

There has been a "phenomenal" increase in the number of incidents in which aircraft are targeted by small hand-held lasers, according to UK police.

In 2008, there were 69 times as many such incidents as in 2003.

The Civil Aviation Authority has set up a task force to respond to the threat of pilots becoming disorientated.

The police have new devices designed to record and analyse laser "strikes" on their aircraft, tracking their source and leading to arrests of attackers.

The BBC gained exclusive access to an exercise trialling these Laser Event Recorders carried out by the air support unit of Greater Manchester Police.

Direct hit

Laser shining in helicopter cockpit
In the cockpit the light can be blinding

"We had one yesterday," said veteran police helicopter pilot Mike Briggs. "You're in no doubt when you've been targeted by one of these lasers."

An "attack" can come from any of the darkened streets over which the force's state of the art helicopter India 99 flies at night.

"You can't miss it. A sharp green beam of light shoots up from the ground, flashing around the helicopter, dazzling anyone on whom it scores a 'direct hit'," said Mr Briggs.

The police have had to learn to deal with the attacks - about half of those reported are aimed at their helicopters. In 2003 just three incidents were recorded. Last year there were 207. So far this year, the tally is 76.

The culprits are usually bored youths, who have got hold of a laser pointer and amuse themselves by playing its beam over passing aircraft.

But from now on they are far more likely to get caught, and get sent to prison.

The Greater Manchester Police air support unit arranged an exercise for the BBC to show how their response has been stepped up.

Graphic showing how laser event recorder works
1 Police helicopter is targeted by laser pointer on the ground
2 Helicopter crew use hand-held Laser Event Recorder to locate pointer. It records wavelength to match beam to pointer - like matching bullet to a gun
3 GPS details enable helicopter's thermal image camera to find suspect and police patrol on ground is directed to address

After informing air traffic control and local police stations we lift off from the police helipad at Barton aerodrome and head for Bolton.

In a residential back garden there is an officer waiting with a cheap laser pointer. We've agreed not to reveal where he bought it, but its beam is incredibly powerful.

As the helicopter flies by he switches it on, and aims for our windows. Inside the aircraft the light flickers eerily between the three crew members.

When it is right in your eyes, you simply can't see anything else. We are 1,200ft (365m) up, but the beam is strong and sharp.

If we were within 500ft there would be a real possibility of eye damage, but at our altitude the risk is of distraction and disorientation - not helpful when flying a helicopter.

The police also say it stops them concentrating on the job in hand, often a car pursuit on the ground with busy radio traffic.

But India 99's rear observer now has a secret weapon.

Eye in the sky

Event recorder in front of helicopter
The Event Recorder logs everything

The Laser Event Recorder not only takes a picture of the attack and logs where it came from using GPS, but also analyses the wavelength of the laser being used.

It can also warn the police if the laser is powerful enough or close enough to cause physical damage to the eyes.

This can be compared with the specifications of the device used in the attack, providing vital new evidence. "It's a little bit like matching a bullet to a gun," said Mr Briggs.

We turn in the sky and circle the house of the "suspect", with two observers on board to track him.

The rear observer has two large screens, one showing the image from the aircraft's camera, the other a moving map.

The camera uses thermal imaging to clearly show people and warm objects standing in gardens or on open ground. Even when the warm laser pointer is thrown into a bush it can often be seen from the air.

The rear observer can zoom in to show a glowing image of an offender, and then look at the moving map, where a cursor shows the spot on which the camera is focused.

The "offender" outline appears full screen and we watch as he tries to throw the pointer away. A dog team is called in and an arrest made.

Guided by the eye in the sky, the ground officers easily find the laser. The suspect may try to claim it hasn't been used, but it is still warm, and the police have the evidence of its wavelength from the Laser Event Recorder.

Not toys

Thermal image of people with a laswer
Thermal imaging helps catch the culprits

Police currently have to prove a suspect recklessly or negligently endangered an aircraft. The Civil Aviation Authority is drawing up new laws of the air under which it will simply be an offence to shine a laser at an aircraft.

Many offenders regard what they've done as a prank, but a jail term for a first offence is now common.

Bob Jones, head of flight operations at the CAA, said: "To those individuals targeting aircraft with laser devices the message is clear - don't. You will be caught and you will be prosecuted and you could spend up to five years in prison. These things are not toys, they pose a serious risk to all flight safety."

And the police insist they won't be turning a "blind eye" when they're attacked from the ground.

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