Laws and Lasers: Dangers of Cheap, Powerful Devices Outracing Regulation


Not that long ago, nobody would mistake the weak lasers a person could buy at retail outlets for the stuff of science fiction. Today, that's changing. The Spyder III Pro Arctic looks more like a lightsaber than an ordinary laser pointer. The concern is that it acts more like a lightsaber, too.

The device, developed by Wicked Lasers, is the most powerful hand-held laser readily available to the public. According to the Wicked Laser website, the Arctic is dangerously strong, with the capability to burn skin, cause permanent eye damage, and set fire to anything flammable.

In some ways, it's even more of a menace than a lightsaber. While the fictional Jedi blades have a length of just a few feet, the Arctic has a range of up to 45 miles. All for less than $200.

No Doubt That Risk Exists

Not surprisingly, there has been a considerable uproar about the Arctic. Many are upset that such a laser can be purchased over the Internet for less than a Kindle. They argue that such products are no less hazardous than firearms, and unlike guns, there are no mandatory background checks for buyers of lasers.

A laser as potent as the Spyder III can cause serious injury. Beyond the obvious risk of skin burns, even reflected beams can cause irreversible eye damage. If someone were to thoughtlessly aim the Arctic at a plane, they could harm a pilot's eyesight, or worse. Such terrible and illegal incidents have happened, and could be repeated.

Technology Outruns Regulation

The hazards of misusing these lasers highlight an issue that crosses a range of industries: Technology frequently evolves faster than regulation. Currently, lasers are legally classified by their energy output, with the most powerful ones -- Class IV, which includes the Arctic -- being the most strictly controlled. However, even vendors of Class IV lasers have no legal obligation to inform their buyers of the risks involved in using the devices, verify a purchaser's age, or limit the power of their lasers.

These outdated rules are so lax because publicly available lasers were largely weak and inefficient when the regs were written. Now, as it becomes economically feasible to produce more powerful lasers for the general public, regulations must be strengthened. The specific laser at the heart of the Arctic has undergone a remarkable 50-fold increase in power in the last four years, while decreasing to a tenth of its former price.

What's next for lasers?

I spoke at length with Steve Liu, the CEO of Wicked Lasers, about both his product and the industry. He cites the efficiency of lasers as the reason for their astounding progress and potential. While light bulbs and LED lights operate at approximately 5% and 15% efficiency, respectively, laser diodes can approach 80% efficiency. This is an enormous advantage, and the possibilities inherent in the expanded use of lasers have sparked the interest of military, medicinal, and industrial scientists alike.

But Liu also noted that without regulatory reform, the divergence between existing laws and the technology realities will only widen. His company actually supports added supervision of consumer laser products, and imposes conditions for Arctic purchases more stringent than current Class IV requirements. For the industry as a whole, he suggested that stronger lasers receive a new set of classifications with stricter laws.

While these measures may be considered in the future, a risky situation exists now. Theoretically, a teenager could legally purchase a powerful laser and misuse it with disastrous results. Outrage would certainly follow, and potentially, an excessive regulatory backlash that could stunt the industry's growth. And while large corporations and public entities might not suffer as deeply, much of the innovation in the field comes from some of its smaller players.

Such a delay the industry's development would be a shame. Economical lasers used responsibly could actually benefit many people. NASA would surely appreciate the energy savings that lasers could offer. Among the possibilities: Cultivating plants in space using laser "grow lamps," which are 25% to 50% more efficient than current LED lamps. Consumers would love cell phones that project laser videos, which could be standard within a few short years.

However, reform must come first. None of these things will be possible if the public only sees lasers as unregulated weapons.