You cannot point a laser pointer at a plane. It’s illegal, or the act could send you behind bars and/or get you slapped with a penalty.
The seemingly tiny, innocuous laser pointer light disperses and flashes onto the aircraft’s windshield when pointed at an airplane. The pinpoint light splays as it takes its journey.
And the imperfections found in an aircraft’s windshield glass scatter the light with more intensity, hampering the pilot’s view in the process.
What about directing a laser pointer at an uncrewed flight, such as a drone? Will the action hamper the flight or cause damage to the UAV (uncrewed aerial vehicle)? Is lasing a drone illegal?
Read on to find that out and more.
- What Happens If You Point a Laser at a Drone?
- Do Lasers Mess Up Drones?
- Can You Jam a Drone Signal?
- How to Take Down a Drone Legally?
- Know the Drone Before Filing a Complaint
What Happens If You Point a Laser at a Drone?
A laser pointer is a handheld laser that helps point out objects. The device is typically used or intended to be used for demonstration and entertainment.
When viewed from an aircraft, laser pointers (less than 5mW power) would be visibly bright, like a quarter moon — that’s provided there is no smog or clouds. And that could be a source of distraction for the pilot.
When pointed at a drone, the laser pointer won’t cause any physical damage to the UAV or interfere with communication signals — mainly if the laser device is made according to the FDA or has a power output not more than 5mW.
If the power supply is greater, the laser device may cause a drone some harm.
Do Lasers Mess Up Drones?
As mentioned above, a laser device can mess up a drone if its light is intense and piercing enough.
The laser pointer should be a truly capable device or something stationary and dedicated to tracking and taking down errant quadcopters to inflict any actual harm on a drone.
Besides the power needed to dazzle a flying drone, the laser device or setup must also have built-in technology that accurately tracks drones and continuously engages with them.
The U.S. Air Force took delivery of its very first high-energy laser system to shoot down UAVs in 2019. The laser setup was essentially a modified variant of the high-power laser weapon system made by the company Raytheon Technologies.
Instead of blinding the drone or impeding its sensors, the laser turns up the heat to melt the drone’s outer body, thereby damaging the internal wiring and causing the batteries to explode and hampering other components.
Here is a video demonstrating how the Raytheon HELWS system works:
If a powerful, high-precision laser system like the one commissioned by the United States Air force is deployed to tackle drones, expect the following outcomes:
Based on the power output or intensity of the laser and the period of exposure, the physical damage a laser pointer can inflict upon a drone could vary.
A 5mW laser pointer, as stated earlier, won’t cause any damage to a drone.
However, if the laser pointer is much more capable, the heat it generates could be hazardous to the drone when its light hits the flying device.
The drone’s plastic housing could melt when exposed to powerful laser light for around 10 seconds or more, revealing the electronics, which eventually get tased by the laser.
And to achieve that, it need not be as robust or sophisticated as the Raytheon HELWS.
Drones do not have eyes or brains to instruct them on what to do. In other words, they don’t depend on their cameras to move in a particular direction during a flight. The drone is remotely operated by a human who ascertains the drone’s path and relies on the drone’s built-in visual sensors.
Suppose the laser light hits the camera that the drone operator relies on to navigate the UAV. In that case, the flash will reflect on the drone user’s digital screen, causing them troubles with flying the aircraft.
Also, light from laser pointers can pose hurdles to a drone’s landing sensors and the down-facing cameras that detect obstacles underneath.
When its sensors are messed with, the drone exhibits uncontrolled aerial behavior. It could even land abruptly or come down crashing.
That said, pointing at a flying drone’s camera or sensors with a laser pointer from the ground is extremely difficult, let alone maintaining the engagement.
The greater the altitude of the flying drone, the challenging it will be to laser it with a handheld device.
Can You Jam a Drone Signal?
Yes, you can jam a drone’s signal, thanks to the radio wave frequencies they use to talk with their controller. Jamming equipment, such as the AUDS (Anti-UAV Defence System), scan skies for UAVs and jam drones’ control signals with their radio signals.
Watch this video to learn more about AUDS:
However, by disrupting a drone’s signal, you may also be interfering with other radio signal transmissions, which could land you in some trouble — particularly if the other radio equipment or infrastructure belongs to the state.
Due to this likelihood of accidentally disrupting radio signals of other equipment, jamming a drone’s signal is not advised.
Moreover, disconnecting a drone from its operator is also illegal. When a UAV loses signal, it could come crashing down, causing damage to life or property. Some drones with jammed signals, however, may manage to fly back to their source location.
Kindly note, jamming a drone is not the same as hijacking it. A hijacker interferes with a drone’s flight to take over its control. A jammer’s intention is only to fend off a buzzing UAV.
How to Take Down a Drone Legally?
Perhaps the only way to take a drone down legally is to take the matter to the attention of the concerned authorities. In other words, report it to the local FAA office. You cannot shoot a drone down or shine a laser pointer at it.
But before filing a complaint, find out who owns or is operating the UAV and get in touch. Let them know you are not happy with their drone operations.
If the friendly interaction with the drone operator doesn’t work out, approach the concerned authorities. Officers from the regulatory body would investigate your case and contact the drone owner/operator.
Kindly note, airspace is public or belongs to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).
Before registering a case, make sure the drone is flying too close to your house or the noise is loud to the extent of being outright annoying. If you suspect the drone is recording you, check if it’s hovering or flying in circles near your property.
Only if one or two of the above conditions are met, take necessary action.
Using Guns to Shoot Down Drones is Criminal
As stated earlier, you cannot shoot a drone down, and there are legitimate reasons for outlawing gun usage against flying drones.
First, the bullet could pierce the drone’s lithium-ion battery and cause a fire accident. The ablaze drone could crash onto your property, causing grave damages.
Second, if you are not a skilled shooter or manage to miss the drone (which is highly likely if the drone is flying at a distance from the ground), you may cause unintended damage to property or life after the missed bullet eventually drops off the sky.
A Drone-Trapping Gun is Also Not Advisable
A drone-trapping or muzzling gun may be a harmless way to take a drone down, but it may still draw the ire of the operator or be considered illegal.
Moreover, a net gun could indirectly damage the UAV once the trapped drone crashes to the ground. The small metal components that help carry the net could directly contact a drone’s plastic body and cause it harm.
And if there are people in the area, the net and the ensnared drone could fall onto a random person and hurt them. (Net guns are usually fine to deploy if the drone is flying over your property.)
Moreover, net guns can work only up to a specific range, usually when the drone is flying 50 feet or less from the ground.
The Law Enforcement Can Shoot Down Drones
As per the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act provision, government authorities can shoot down private drones that seem like a potential threat. It wasn’t possible to do that before.
In certain parts of the United States, however, officers had the provision to disable rogue drones — whether they were endangering the public or flying over restricted areas.
Know the Drone Before Filing a Complaint
The drone flying over you could be a hobby/recreational drone (used by individuals) or a commercial drone (used by companies). Therefore, gather information about the UAV before planning your next course of action.
Unlike an enthusiast drone, a commercial quadcopter can fly over properties or into airspaces that may be otherwise restricted to drones used by individuals, thanks to the part 107 waiver.
Therefore, filing a complaint with the FAA against a commercial drone could be an effort in vain since the entity operating the drone would have likely procured needed permission to use the aircraft.
Tools to Detect a Drone’s Identity
To learn more about a drone, use tools and apps. DeTect makes drone-detection products that help identify a flying drone’s ID, type, and other information. There is also an app called Drone Watcher that helps accomplish something similar.
Here is a video demonstrating how the Drone Watcher application works:
At first glance, a laser pointer looks harmless and also fun to play with. But once you realize the device’s true potential, you learn a laser pointer is anything but a toy.
Though capable of inflicting some damage to the eye when looked into with the naked eye, an FAA-acknowledged laser pointer is unlikely to be hazardous to drones. It certainly has no hopes of being used in counter-drone activities.
More powerful laser light could distract the drone’s sensors and cause its untoward behavior. If you don’t want to get in trouble with the law or the drone owner, it’s safe to not poke at a random drone with a laser pointer.
Get in touch with the drone operator and then the authorities (if required) instead.
Catherine Tramell has been covering technology as a freelance writer for over a decade. She has been writing for Pointer Clicker for over a year, further expanding her expertise as a tech columnist. Catherine likes spending time with her family and friends and her pastimes are reading books and news articles.