According to U.S.C. TITLE 18, CHAPTER 2 of FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, it is a federal offense to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the United States. This greatly reduces the hazards associated with using recreational lasers in outdoor environments, but it does not eliminate all risks related to laser use. Lasers have a variety of practical uses outdoors and need to be properly handled in a manner that allows them to operate properly without harming the users and those that might be in the laser’s path. ANSI Z136.6-2015 – Safe Use of Lasers Outdoors specifies guidelines for designers, users, and operators of lasers or laser systems for outdoor use, and has many applications, including laser light shows, lasers used for outdoor scientific research, and military lasers.
One of the key concerns with using the Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation outdoors is that the beams of the lasers can travel freely without being blocked by the same obstructions that prevent dispersal of lasers indoors. Diffraction of the laser beam can cause it to expand the further it travels, posing hazards to a greater amount of people. The standard also addresses atmospheric effects that can alter lasers only if they are used outdoors, such as temperature variations causing scintillation, which leads to alterations in the energy distribution of the energy beam, and aerosols causing attenuation, which alters the wavelength of the beams.
Outdoor lasers are often used for intentional illumination, such as in the case of outdoor light shows. This can present hazards to people’s vision and eyes, so it is essential that the operators of the lasers keep them contained to a particular area. While this is especially harmful at night, stray laser beams also pose dangers for people during the day. ANSI Z136.6-2015 summarizes the transient effects of intense light on visual function and the factors that control these. The standard also advises that lasers should not be used to intentionally interfere with vision.
Intentional illumination lasers are also concerning because of their ability to interfere with operators of heavy machinery. For example, upward-facing lasers used in outdoor scientific research have the potential to interfere with airplanes and even spacecrafts. As a precaution, regional FAA offices should be contacted prior to any laser operations that could interfere with air traffic.
ANSI Z136.6-2015 serves as an alternative for ANSI Z136.1-2022: Safe Use of Lasers, which defines the different laser safety classes and covers guidelines for creating a safe environment for using lasers indoors. These are available together in the ANSI Z136.1 AND Z136.6 Combination Set.