UCF Scientist May Have Golden Solution for Pilots Hit by Laser PointersMarch 10, 2013
Most people see gold as a high-end sign of wealth. Jayan Thomas sees it as a high-tech remedy for a safety threat that has worried the aviation industry for years.
The University of Central Florida scientist envisions his research in gold nanotechnology could one day produce "laser-proof" glasses coated with gold to protect airline pilots from being temporarily blinded by a laser shot from the ground.
"Are we working on a bulletproof vest for the eyes? Yes, that's probably a pretty good analogy for what we're developing here," said Thomas, an assistant professor of chemistry in UCF's NanoScience Technology Center.
With nearly 3,500 such "laser incidents" having occurred in the U.S. last year — including 298 in Florida and 58 in Metro Orlando — experts say there's a fertile market for such a product if it works.
But Thomas and his collaborators at Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh face some serious hurdles before the idea becomes a reality — not the least of which are the federal government's new deficit-reduction budget cuts.
If those "sequester" budget cuts remain in place, nearly $9 billion will be eliminated from scientific research this year alone, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
That means competition for grants will become more intense than ever, said Thomas, who plans to apply for money from the Air Force and the National Science Foundation for his latest project.
"It's going to be very difficult, very difficult," said the laser researcher, who has won hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants since coming to UCF two years ago from the University of Arizona. So far, his laser-proof-eyewear project has been financed solely by UCF and Carnegie Mellon.
Through atomic engineering, they have created "gold nanoclusters" — more than 200,000 times smaller than the tip of a pen — that have "optical limiting" qualities. That means the tiny gold particles can block and extinguish high-energy laser beams while allowing harmless visible light to pass through.
If the lab work eventually translates into a commercial product, it could be a breakthrough in laser-safe eyewear, said Dan Macchiarella, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
Although he is not familiar with UCF's specific research, Macchiarella said military pilots have used gold-tinted laser-safe eyewear for a long time, though it is effective only against certain frequencies of laser beams.
"If there is a solution they're developing that could be applied to lasers of all strengths and wavelengths, that would certainly be a big advancement," he said.
Few, if any, commercial pilots use the laser-safe eyewear that is now available, because it also blocks much of the natural light, making everything too dark and limiting critical visibility, according to the FAA.
The FAA said it was not familiar with the UCF research and would not comment on it. The agency, which has been working on the problem for years, documented 3,482 laser incidents involving aircraft last year, compared with only 283 incidents in 2005. Most involved thugs or pranksters using common laser pointers that can be purchased at many electronics stores.
Since 2005, nearly a half-dozen people in Central Florida have been convicted of aiming laser pointers at passenger airlines and other aircraft, according to local law-enforcement agencies.
Most experts say there is little chance of pilots suffering permanent eye damage from a laser pointer aimed at them from thousands of feet away on the ground — though more powerful and dangerous lasers are now sold to the public.
Such high-intensity lasers are increasingly being used against passenger jets and police aircraft, said Capt. Steve Sevier, a US Airways pilot and safety expert for the Coalition of Air Line Pilots Associations. And they have indeed caused eye injuries, Sevier said, citing his own experience when a laser hit his cockpit two years ago on an approach to Los Angeles International Airport.
"We were about 15 minutes from the airport when all of a sudden we were swept by an extremely bright green light," he said. "It hit my left eye and felt like someone had just punched me directly in the face."
Investigators later said they believed the incident involved a "military-style" laser, he said. Eventually, an eye doctor found bruising in his left eye and determined he had narrowly avoided serious injury, Sevier said.
But even low-energy laser pointers can disrupt the cockpit by temporarily blinding an aircrew, the FAA said. To date, there have been no serious accidents, as pilots have been able to "work around" the disruptions, the agency said.
The fear, however, is that such threats could escalate if adopted by terrorists or organized crime, said Scott Shappell, a professor of human-factors studies at Embry-Riddle.
"And it's not just the terrorist threat we have to be concerned about," he said. "These lasers have become so prevalent in our society, many people just don't understand the potential damage they can do."
Shappell welcomed the potential solution from UCF and Carnegie-Mellon, though he warned it might be costly.
"Just from the street level, isn't this an awfully expensive way to do it, if we outfit every pilot with what is effectively gold-plated sunglasses?" he said. "I mean, even a good pair of Ray-Bans is pretty costly these days."
But Thomas, the UCF researcher, said the new coating would be cost-effective, because the amount of gold needed to produce a coating based on nanoclusters is a tiny fraction of an ounce.
"We're not talking about very much at all," he said. "You can do a lot with very little when you're working with nanoscience."