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Comparing Laser Pointer vs. Laser Designator


When you use a laser pointer, you will see a small point where the laser impacts. The concentrated light isn’t usually as powerful and is used mostly for display. On the other hand, laser designators are much more powerful, albeit less visible, “painting” a target because of their infrared intensity. 

Let’s look at the two closely:

What Is A Laser Pointer?

Laser pointers come in many shapes, sizes, and intensities. However, when comparing it to laser designators, we can consider it as a laser sight – a unique attachment adjusted to a pistol, shotgun, or rifle to facilitate aim. Laser pointers used for firearms are usually red or green. 

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Some laser sights have a pointer attached to them, and the amplified light hits the surface, the bullet will hit directly. Users don’t have to look down at the sights, saving them time. Usually, these lasers are accurate up to 100 meters or less. Beyond that, the laser starts to fade away as it introduces bullet drop, wind speed, and a range of other elements into the equation as well. 

What Is a Laser Designator?

You can think of a laser designator as the elder, more dangerous brother of a laser pointer. The principle is the same, i.e., it uses an amplified ray of light to identify a target, but the function is slightly different. 

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Laser designators are usually much more intense and can burn skin if exposed for too long. Laser points aren’t as damaging, though. Laser designators can travel much farther as well compared to pointers. 

The goal is to ‘paint’ a target and highlight it for a homing bomb, missile, or artillery shell. These lasers are the primary constituent of a laser-guidance or semi-active laser homing system. 

The high intensity, heat painting capabilities, and invisibility are achieved by using an infrared light range, making it much more tactical than lasing a target with a red laser. Since it uses infrared light, laser designators can also pierce fog and smoke.

How do Laser Designators Work?

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When a laser designator is used to mark a target, the invisible infrared beam shines on it in pulses. These pulses are reflected off the target surface and are detected by a seeker mounted on a laser-guided munition. Its propulsion or gliding system steers itself automatically within 3 meters of the target. 

Furthermore, since infrared can pierce through atmospheric conditions better than visible light, the cover of cloud, rain, or smoke makes laser designators one of the most effective tools a soldier or scout can have. 

Combining Laser Pointers & Designators

Theoretically, though you can have a laser sight that’s also a laser designator; it might not be very practical. Since bullets are not laser-seeking, mounting a laser designator on a handgun might not be the best idea. Still, there can be some strategic applications in which the laser pointers help soldiers use a handgun normally until they need supporting fire, particularly mortar. 

Comparing Laser Pointers vs. Laser Designators

Use

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Pointer

Laser pointers are used widely because of their radiation, ability to read and transfer information, and more. Key applications include:

  • Optical disc drives
  • Laser printers
  • Barcode scanners
  • DNA sequencing 
  • Fiber-optic data transfer
  • Photolithography
  • Communication
  • Surgery 
  • Skin treatments, and more. 

Designator

Laser designators only have one use: painting a spot on the target to mark it for laser-seeking munition. For the munition to truly maintain accuracy, the laser should be pointed at the target until impact continuously.

Distance

Pointer

 

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The distance a laser pointer can travel depends entirely on its color and intensity. For example, a 1mW red laser would travel much further than a green laser of the same power, because of red’s higher frequency range

A 5mW red laser can travel up to 260 meters without losing any of its properties while a 3mW laser pointer can highlight elements up to 60 meters.

Designator

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As mentioned above, laser designators are much stronger than laser pointers because of their higher frequency. A 5mW laser designator can paint a non-stationary target about 2,500 to 3,000 meters away easily, and if the target and user are both stationary, the same can extend to a whopping 10,000 meters.

Affordability

Pointers

Laser technology is evolving further to make it more accessible for virtually every use. Because of their widespread use, they are becoming more affordable, especially the low-intensity lasers, such as the ones used in toys.

Designators

Laser designators have always been a bit pricey – and for good reason. First, they need to be kept away from public use. Also, the designator technology has evolved as well, but not as rapidly as laser pointers. Lastly, infrared lasers have always been relatively expensive. For these reasons, laser designator prices have remained relatively similar over the years.

Safety

safety sign laser pointer

Pointer

Laser pointers aren’t as dangerous as laser designators, but that is not to say they are free of risk either. Even low-intensity lasers can lead to optical or skin damage if not used properly. Proper training and even laser safety glasses can reduce the damage lasers can cause to your eyes significantly.

Designator

Because of the pulse repetition and high frequency of designator lasers, they should only be used by trained individuals. The heat associated with these infrared lasers can damage eyes permanently in an instant even at long distances. 

Furthermore, if there is a laser-guided munition inbound, the laser operator must maintain their target until impact

Alternatives

Pointers

There are several non-laser pointers in development. The most successful of these include the ‘virtual pointers,’ which use smart technology to generate a dot on the screen or projector according to the presenter’s hand movement. 

Designators

Laser-guided munitions are very reliable and cost-effective compared to their alternatives. These include:

  • Radar-guided munition
  • Heat-seeking/infrared-guided munition
  • Optical tracking
  • Wire-guided munition

Table

FeatureLaser Pointer Laser Designator
Use
  • Optical disc drives
  • Laser printers
  • Barcode scanners
  • DNA sequencing 
  • Fiber-optic data transfer
  • Photolithography
  • Communication
  • Surgery 
  • Skin treatments, and more. 
Weapon system targeting
RangeUp to 260 metersUp to 10,000 meters
AffordabilityVery low-price options availableRelatively expensive
SafetyUse of proper safety, especially eye safety, is essentialEye safety glasses may not be as effective, either. Requires extensive safety training.
Ease of OperationSimpleComplex
AlternativesVirtual pointers
  • Radar-guidance
  • Heat-seeking/infrared-guidance
  • Optical tracking
  • Wire-guidance

Conclusion

When comparing laser pointers vs. laser designators, people believe that the main principles behind them remain the same, but that is not the case. There aren’t many applications for laser designators for the public. It is a much more dangerous alternative to a laser pointer, and since extended exposure to it can burn skin, its use in public or crowded areas should be avoided. 

In a laser pointer vs. laser designator comparison, there is no clear winner since they can’t be used interchangeably.

 


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