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Laser Strike Sensor System Geolocates Perpetrators

October 2nd 2017

Laser burst

Researchers at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory (Lexington, MA) are developing sensors to defend aircraft against laser strikes to reduce dangers for commercial pilots.

Laser strikes - the use of high-power handheld lasers being aimed at aircraft - have been an increasing safety concern for commercial airliner pilots and passengers. However, the perpetrators of these incidents are rarely caught due to difficulty in identifying where a given laser beam may have originated.

Current solutions such as special pilot goggles or aircraft window tinting can reduce pilot visibility, and installing special sensors on commercial aircraft is too costly. Now, researchers at the Laser Technology and Applications and Air Traffic Control Systems groups at Lincoln laboratory are working on a ground-based camera sensor system that is capable of detecting the sources of such laser beam attacks.

The system, called the Laser Aircraft Strike Suppression Optical System (LASSOS), works by capturing side-scattered laser light and tracing it back to the perpetrator's location. According to the researchers, it 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," says Tom Reynolds, a member of the development team and associate leader of the Air Traffic Control Systems Group. "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."

The system consists of two or more high-sensitivity, low-noise, charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras that image the scattered laser light from different vantage points, enabling the digital reconstruction of the laser streak in three dimensions. The geographic coordinates of the laser's origin are then calculated by tracing the laser streak down to a topographically accurate model of the Earth's surface - a feature made possible by the integration of Google Earth .

Within 30 seconds of the image being captured, the system provides nearby law enforcement officials with the GPS coordinates of the laser's origin, nearest address, and the time of the incident.

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

In tests, the system prototype has already demonstrated speed and accuracy, say the researchers. For example, in one test researchers shone high-power laser beams from a baseball field nine nautical miles away from the sensors and were geolocated by LASSOS in less than 30 seconds. In fact, they say, the system was so accurate that it could distinguish whether the laser beams came from first, second, or third base.

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