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Lasers warn pilots of restricted airspace

From Kathleen Koch

Air Transportation
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Technology (general)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military is planning a final demonstration Friday night of a ground-based laser system designed to warn pilots who have flown into restricted airspace over the nation's capital.

During the demonstration of the Visual Warning System, a test aircraft will be illuminated with alternating red and green laser lights, said Michael Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

"It's an attention-getter, but it's not blinding," Kucharek said. "It's not a distraction. So pilots can still focus on flying the aircraft without endangering anyone or themselves."

NORAD is looking for a cheaper, safer way to let pilots know they've strayed into restricted airspace over Washington.

Currently, fighter jets are scrambled and either intercept unauthorized planes or alert them by dropping flares.

"That's a very costly kind of operation," Kucharek said. "With the Visual Warning System, we wouldn't necessarily have to go to those extremes to get their attention."

A NORAD press release says the lasers are "eye-safe and non-hazardous at all ranges" and are distinct from other light signals used by air traffic control of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Kucharek said the laser would not be visible to other aircraft in the test area or to residents on the ground.

The concept was developed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities office, whose mission is to get new technology to aid in the war on terror into the field as quickly as possible.

Kucharek said the system will give NORAD "another tool in its toolbox to protect the airspace over the national capital region."

Technical testing of the laser system was completed January 12, and the hardware, software, beam and tracking mechanisms were working properly, he said.

Operational testing could begin this spring.

Before the system is implemented, Kucharek said, it will need further FAA approval. Intense briefings of pilots in the region will also be held so that all understand how the system works and how to respond.

For now, the system will be used only over the District of Columbia, he said.

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