FAA evaluates unique laser-blocking goggles developed by Air Force Research Lab

Written by Brandi Vincent

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — As the threat of laser strikes against pilots escalates, the Federal Aviation Administration is evaluating advanced laser eye protection designed by the Air Force Research Laboratory for more widespread commercial use.

Years in development, these tangerine-colored lenses on particularly delicate glasses were one of multiple mechanisms and capabilities that AFRL officials highlighted for Undersecretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks during her stop at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base last week. At this Ohio-based lab, Hicks received classified briefings largely focused on several research efforts and capability advancements associated with counter-directed energy technology that she says “will pay off as we examine the potential use of the adversary”.

“As we already know from laser pointers on commercial aircraft, for example, this [there’s] already demonstrated use of directed energy and lasers, either against civilian targets – or, as we look at military use, potential on a larger scale. So very good work is being done here to solve this problem on the material science side,” Hicks told reporters near the end of his AFRL tour. “I’m very happy with what I saw.”

When lasers are pointed at pilots’ eyes – on the battlefield or during commercial flights – it makes their vision very difficult and can even force them to lose their visual acuity altogether. It’s a federal crime to point lasers at planes, but also increasingly common.

“This is a huge threat to our pilots – both commercial and military,” Richard Vaia, AFRL’s chief scientist for materials and manufacturing, told reporters during a lab briefing. “There have been reports in the news, open reports, of this having an impact on military operations. So in Africa, in Australia — Navy pilots [recently] reported lasers in the South China Sea. And just in general, the FAA has been reporting incidents that are skyrocketing year after year from commercial pilots. So people who use directed energy to change the behavior of our staff are a threat.

The lab has an extensive program led by the Materials and Manufacturing department to address this specific threat from various angles. Personnel Protection Team officials explore and develop capabilities that can protect structures, sensors, platforms, and pilots’ eyes from laser strikes. They’re working on activities that are “very far off – putting nanostructures on surfaces so you can actually reject certain wavelengths of light or channel certain wavelengths of light,” Vaia said.

Many commercial manufacturers have created and offered laser eye protection in recent years to support military and law enforcement pilots, but the products generally work by filtering out the green or red light widely associated with lasers. However, this change in view of certain lights may make it more difficult for pilots to see certain elements and color indications on the instrument control panels of the machines they fly.

Over the past decade, researchers and scientists have pushed R&D into laser eye protection options that solve this problem. All of this recently culminated in recent testing of Commercial Aviation Low Intensity (CALI) – a tool produced by officials by modifying cockpit compatibility design software developed for the Department of Defense Laser Eye Protection, for commercial use. .

Matthew Lange is a research scientist who leads the personnel protection team. He named CALI and, along with his retired predecessor Bryan Edmonds and many others, helped launch the eyewear.

“We can do the CALI design in eyewear and ballistics,” Lange told FedScoop at AFRL, referring to the lab’s industry partners who can make the various goggle technologies and components — including sleek frames. which cover the face but do not interfere with ear defenders that pilots must wear while in the cockpit.

“CALI provides relevant protection that was designed using the Air Force tool, with cockpit compatibility in mind, and so it’s just a different mentality,” Lange said.

The AFRL has also relied on ready-to-use commercial dyes for the lenses.

“For CALI, we used all [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] unlimited levels of protection as determined by the Department of State,” Lange noted.

Washington State Patrol pilots tested CALI last year and ultimately shared rave reviews. Asked by FedScoop if he intended to share the goggles with other units or police departments, Lange replied that he “sent a box of them to the FAA, and they were actively flight testing them.”

“Presumably there will be a policy statement when they are completed,” he added, noting that these tests will likely take some time. “But we are expecting the first round of assessments from the FAA soon. We hope to hear good news, but if not, we will fix it.

Given the sensitive nature of the topics, Hicks did not share much with reporters of her classified AFRL briefings during the trip, but she did confirm that the discussions were partially focused on the counter-directed energy applications being developed. development.

“For the Air Force and for the Space Force, it’s a big deal and something they’ve invested in over time,” Hicks said. “I got to see the capabilities already fielded, and then the potential for more capabilities in the future.”

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