Laser flare rescued by new law

The heightened security following Sept. 11 affects us in many ways, but what if a new antiterrorism law threatened to harm the business of building safety devices that save lives? That was the problem for Jim O’Meara, founder and president of Greatland Laser, when a recent antiterrorism law was drawn up.

O’Meara’s company, based in Homer, Alaska, manufactures a variety of laser-based products, including one of special interest to mariners and small-plane pilots: the Rescue Laser Flare. A hand-held device the size of a small flashlight, the Rescue Laser Flare can be used to signal to airplanes and boats in emergency situations. Unfortunately for O’Meara, at about the time he began selling his laser units, cheap laser pointers became widely available.

The result was that in 2004, the United States experienced a rash of incidents involving people pointing laser pointers at airliners and helicopters in flight. On Jan. 4 last year, the FBI arrested a man in Parsippany, N.J., for shining green laser light into the cockpits of two aircraft near Teterboro airport. These incidents got the attention of the federal government, and in late December 2005, Congress passed legislation making it a crime punishable by five years’ imprisonment to shine a laser at an airplane using a “laser pointer or similar device.”

The bad news for O’Meara, a sailor and former Alaska bush pilot, was that the Rescue Laser Flare falls into this category. And the whole point of his laser flare is to shine it at rescue airplanes. O’Meara often finds himself grilled by potential customers, “I get a lot of questions,” O’Meara said, “They ask ‘Am I going to go to jail if I shine it at an airplane?'”

Luckily for O’Meara’s business, however, his customers needn’t worry about a visit from the FBI should they use their laser flares in an emergency. The act makes exceptions for the use of lasers by the Department of Defense, the FAA and law enforcement. It also excepts those using a laser emergency signaling device.

And as O’Meara explains, there is a crucial difference between a laser pointer and his laser flare. The light output from a typical pointer is a concentrated dot. “It’s hard to hit an airplane with it,�VbCrLf O’Meara said. And because the light is concentrated, it can disorient a pilot. O’Meara’s unit, however, has a special lens that flattens the beam into a line of laser light.

Another benefit is that, unlike a traditional pyrotechnic flare, the laser flare doesn’t burn brightly then fade out. It not only gets the attention of rescuers but also pinpoints the user’s location. The laser flare also is effective in overboard situations. The reflective tape used on foul-weather gear and life jackets allows a laser-equipped crew onboard to find and keep track of a crewmember in the water. “The laser will find a life jacket two miles away,�VbCrLf O’Meara said. And for voyagers traveling to their boats with supplies, pyrotechnic flares aren’t allowed on airplanes, while the laser flare is.

Until now, Greatland Laser only offered a laser flare that used red light. Now, O’Meara is introducing a green flare. The main reason for a green laser is eye response – the human eye is most receptive to green light. Tests have indicated that the Green Laser Flare is 30 times more visible than the red laser during the day and 100 times more visible at night. The only drawback to the green unit is battery life. While the red Rescue Laser Flare Magnum is powered with twin AA batteries and will last 72 hours, the new 532 green unit uses a single 3-volt battery that lasts four hours.

The laser flares have proved popular with the FAA, which has purchased 400 of the units from Greatland Laser. O’Meara says he has sold more than 19,000 red laser flares. The green 532 units are in production now and will sell for $249 each. The Magnum model red light laser sells for $109.95. Greatland also offers the smaller 15-hour rescue laser flare powered by two N-type batteries for $99.95 and the 5-hour $89.95 Rescue Laser Light powered by a single 6-volt battery.

GPS competitor launches first satellite

The long-discussed European version of GPS, called Galileo, took a tangible step in late December when the first Galileo satellite was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On Dec. 28, the Russian space agency Roskosmos rocketed the first Galileo test satellite into orbit aboard a Soyuz booster.

European governments are concerned enough about the control of GPS by the U.S. military to have committed to building and deploying the Galileo system, which is estimated to eventually cost $4.27 billion. Reportedly contributing to the development of the system are a few non-European countries, like Israel and China. Europeans also are betting Galileo will provide a shot in the arm to European electronics, telecommunications and other industries.

For voyagers, the development of the system should improve satellite navigation. In 2004, U.S. and European negotiators agreed on a deal to make Galileo interoperable with GPS. This deal effectively doubles the number of available satellites for position finding, speed determination and all the other capabilities that flow from knowing one’s position very accurately.

Of course, it’s not finished until it’s finished, so we will have to see if the Galileo constellation is completed and the service actually goes on the air. As Paul Verhoef, head of unit for Galileo and Intelligent Transport Systems at the European Commission, said in a Jan. 4 interview in GPS World magazine, “2006 will be a crucial year for us, and for all the pieces getting together. We want to make sure that by the end of the year, a streamlined program is up and running.�VbCrLf

What about Galileo receivers? Are marine electronics companies working on them? Eric Kunz, senior product manager for Furuno, responded to the question via email, “I’m sure dual Galileo/GPS-based receivers will be developed for higher-end applications.�VbCrLf Although Furuno has no firm plans to build one at this time.

By Ocean Navigator