Beaming high-powered lasers into the sky allows scientists to study changing weather patterns, pollution in the Earth’s atmosphere and even gravity on the Moon. But if one of those helpful lasers happens to cross paths with an airplane, it can temporarily blind or distract the pilot and potentially cause a crash.
The current method to avoid plane-laser collisions is decidedly low-tech: Federal Aviation Administration regulations require anyone who’s sending a laser up into the atmosphere to employ multiple human observers, called “spotters,” to watch for planes flying within 25 degrees of the laser beam. Now, researchers have created a radio-tracking device that can perform the same task as a pair of eyes, without the potential for human error.
“The two-spotter system is a problem because spotters can forget to set their alarm clocks, they can get sick, they can get confused about the schedule, and then suddenly you don’t have two spotters anymore and you can’t operate your program,” said physicist Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego, who is co-leading the radio-detection project.
In addition, Murphy says spending all night watching the sky for airplanes can be a cold and windy experience. “I think we have concerns, and the FAA certainly has concerns, about the attention and the wherewithal of spotters,” he said. “An automated system would be vigilant, wouldn’t get tired, and as long as you have checks that it’s working as you expect, would be highly reliable.”