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Laser Laws – For ILDA Members

To ILDA Members:

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama signed a bill which includes a provision making it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft, or at the flight path of an aircraft in U.S. airspace. The language in H.R. 658’s Section 311 will become Title 18, Chapter 2, Section 39A of the United States Code. A complete text of the law is below. 

For the laser show and display industry, this will hopefully not affect outdoor shows, for four reasons:

  1. The law prohibits “knowingly” aiming. If there is an accidental exposure by a laser show, which otherwise has taken all legal and practical steps to avoid exposure, this would hopefully not be in violation of the law.
  2. The law addresses only “laser pointers”. They are defined as “any device designed or used to amplify electromagnetic radiation by stimulated emission that emits a beam designed to be used by the operator as a pointer or highlighter to indicate, mark, or identify a specific position, place, item, or object.”
  3. The law contains exemptions for FAA-approved research and development projects and for FAA-approved flight testing. An FAA official has told us that FAA would continue to allow laser light shows submitted using the current procedures for FAA review and non-objection, even though these are neither R&D nor flight tests.
  4. The law only prohibits aiming at an aircraft, or the flight path of an aircraft. If a laser show or display avoids such aiming — for example by using spotters to turn off the beam if an aircraft gets too close — then there is no violation of the law.
ILDA had been worried because some of these terms could be interpreted in ways unfavorable to laser shows. For example, a prosecutor might argue that a laser show is a “pointer” under the law if it uses the laser to mark specific objects, such as outlining the figures on Stone Mountain, or having a laser beam call attention to an object such as shining it on a stadium or building. Also, if FAA does not have specific authority to approve laser light shows, a prosecutor might argue that a letter of non-objection from FAA does not allow laser show beams. Finally, there is no definition of “flight path”. If a laser is turned off 10 seconds before an aircraft would intersect the beam, is this OK, or is it aiming at the flight path?

As I say, hopefully the new law will not affect outdoor shows. If anyone runs into problems with FAA or any other federal agency, please let me know. If worse comes to worse, there is a provision whereby additional exemptions can be added as “necessary and appropriate” which would be another potential solution for the laser show industry.

— Patrick Murphy

   ILDA Executive Director
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