Can a laser pointer take down a drone?

Laser pointers are a fun gadget that are very easy to get online. When I first had a laser pointer I was only 10 years old and I bought it while on holiday in Majorca with my family. Since that time, laser pointers have got incredibly powerful and come in a range of colours and shapes and sizes. It makes sense that pointing a laser at a drone could cause some issues with navigation and visual piloting. I know that when I am flying my drone directly into the sun I can easily get disorientated. In this article, we will go over everything you need to know about laser pointers and drones and can a laser pointer take down a drone.

A commercial laser pointer is unlikely to be able to take down a drone. There is a very small possibility that shining a laser at the drone can destroy the camera sensor causing the drone pilots to lose the first person view live feed.

Many laser pointers may be able to disorientate a pilot during flight. In 2019 a video released of Chilean protesters seemingly taking down a drone with multiple green lasers.

The protesters were training many laser pointers on a police drone in an attempt to bring it to the ground. The experts predict that the type of disruption the lasers were causing was likely to be pilot’s first person view. If this live feed gets disrupted or sabotaged in any way it may cause the drone pilots to become disorientated and decide to land the drone.

Alternatively, the sheer number of lasers may have increased the temperature of the drone and software failsafes because the drone to land due to the high heat of the internal wiring. Even if I have my drone turned on for a very small amount of time I notice a significant increase in the temperature of the drone. This is amplified when flying and I notice a significant heating of the battery and the internal electronics of the drone.

To understand the effect of the laser on the drone we will first need to take a quick look at lasers and how they work.

Lasers        

The word laser stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. That’s relatively long so we just say laser.

A laser produces a very narrow beam of light that is useful in many technologies. Lasers do not naturally appear in nature but we are able to artificially create a special type of light by producing a very narrow beam in which all of the light waves have very similar wavelengths.

The laser’s light waves travel together with all of their peaks and troughs lined up – we call this being in phase.

It is this very narrow, bright, and focused light which can cause issues when the laser dot is concentrated onto a small area. Because it does not spread out very much (like a flashlight) laser beams can travel a very long way and they concentrate energy on a very small area.

It is this concentration of energy on a small area that can cause damage to the drone’s camera and also cause the electronics to heat up.  

Over the past few years commercial lasers have extended from red to other types of wavelengths. This changes the amount of energy which is transferred by the laser and can make it particularly powerful.

Types of lasers

The power limit for commercial laser pointers is 5 mW. At this point, a person can blink and turn away from the laser before suffering any injury.

The issue is that laser pointers with much higher power output aren’t hard to buy online. Blue and ultraviolet lasers can be particularly dangerous because the human eyes are least sensitive to these frequencies of light.

The power of the lasers can be increased at a single wavelength. Which means that even a green laser can light a match at 100 mW of power. You can see this in action in the YouTube video, below.

Because of the wide availability of different powered lasers laws have been passed to make sure that they are not used to distract pilots which encompasses drone pilots too.

FAA Laser law

The laser memorandum was published in 2011 by the FAA.

Can a laser pointer take down a drone

The way that the memorandum is written can also include drone pilots. This is because it refers to the pilot of the aircraft.

If it causes the UAS pilot to not be able to control the aircraft or create a significant distraction from piloting it is illegal.

Alternatively, if you are using a laser in an attempt to destroy police or government property this is also a crime and so the combination of the memorandum and the laws around protection of property will easily cover a range of issues with the lasers and drones.

Can a laser disable a drone?

It is very unlikely that a laser can disable a drone from a significant distance. This is because as the distance increases the power of the laser also decreases. This means that the heating effects of a single laser are greatly reduced at the sorts of distances that drones fly away from people on the ground.

Using a very high powered laser, using multiple lasers, or using a device which accurately shines the laser directly into the camera sensor are ways that can potentially disable a drone.

Here are the ways that a laser could potentially disable a drone.

Blinding the pilot

The first and most likely scenario for a drone that has been disabled by a laser is that the pilot has been distracted by the laser and has decided to land.

This is particularly true if the pilot is using drone goggles to pilot the drone. In this instance, the only way the drone pilot will be able to avoid the bright lights of the laser would be to close their eyes and move the drone out of the lasers path.

This would be very similar to the sorts of visual interference that an aeroplane pilot would experience.

Interfering with the visual compass

Some drones have a visual compass. For example, my DJI Mavic air has an internal compass which is a hardware compass like many other drones. And, what DJI call a visual compass. There is a potential that the laser could interfere with the visual compass of the DJI Mavic air – or similar drones – while the drone is experiencing issues with its hardware compass.

There are a few forums online that talk about the Mavic air having two compasses. I think this is a misunderstanding of some of the technical features of the DJI Mavic air drone. There is only one compass. However, DJI have marketed this drone as having multiple redundancies. It has dual inertial measurement units but only one compass. The other compass is known as a vision compass which assists the navigation system to estimate the flight direction if the compass experience is any significant interference during your flight. This is what the DJI marketing blurb says:

“Besides dual IMUs, FlightAutonomy 2.0 has more redundant modules to increase the Mavic Air’s safety level. The Vision Compass will assist the navigation system to estimate flight direction when the compass experiences interference. When only one direction of the front, bottom, or rear vision systems is functioning normally, the aircraft will still position itself successfully. There are two sets of sensor fusion algorithms based on two independent hardware platforms. When an error occurs to one set of algorithms, the aircraft will switch to the other pair seamlessly to resume normal functionality.”

This could be particularly likely if the drone is operating under autonomous flying modes or smart capture features. In these situations the drone will be relying on its own navigational systems (rather than the pilot) to manoeuvre and move through the air.

Destroying the sensor

Lasers have the potential to impart a high amount of energy into a very small area. If this happens in the human eye it can easily heat up the cells at the back of the eye and cause them to die. Cameras and camera sensors are also susceptible to this sort of heating damage.

There is an issue with this however. The laser would have to be kept at a relatively short distance from the camera sensor whilst also being fixed on the sensor for a long period of time.

Drones are constantly moving and the camera is also able to be independently moved. This means that it is very unlikely that a laser has the accuracy to be able to stay on the sensor for more than a fraction of a second during a regular drone flight.

Many laser pointers heating electronics

The last, and reasonable way that a laser may be able to take down a drone is if the laser is able to heat up the internal components of the drone enough that the drone enters a failsafe mode and decides to land.

If many laser pointers are directed towards the drone it is reasonable to assume that a fair amount of energy is absorbed by the drone. This could increase the internal temperature of the drone significantly.

Increasing the internal temperature of the drone may cause it to land prematurely and, at extreme temperatures, it can easily damage the battery and cause the battery to explode.

Drones heat up a lot during flight and it wouldn’t take too much to raise it above its standard operational levels.

How do you destroy drones?

Besides using a laser to take down a drone by either disrupting the pilot’s view or increasing the temperature of the internal electronics, there are also some other ways that you can destroy drones. You can jam the signal, physically shoot out of the sky, use birds of prey to pluck the drone out of the sky and you can also capture a drone using a bigger drone that has a net dangling from it.

Jam the signal

It is possible to jam a drone signal by using a disturbance signal in order to disrupt the communication between the drone and the remote control. If you want to know more about exactly how to jam a drone signal you can check out my other article – is it possible to jam a drone signal? [A full guide] – click here to be taken to article.

Is it possible to jam a drone signal?

A drone jammer is a piece of technology which sends a signal to the remote controller and can completely flood the signal coming from the drone. These signals are sent a very high opens in order to cause interference which can make the drone lose all ability to communicate via radio signals.

A drone is not able to communicate with the remote control often simply return to the takeoff location stop or, it will land where it is. It is very hard to defend against a jamming signal and in order to beat a drone jammer you must send an outfit which is at a much higher energy than that of the jammer. This is not something that a consumer level drone would be able to achieve easily.

Physically shoot it

If you want to destroy a drone you can also physically shoot it out of the sky. In countries like America where you are able to purchase firearms you may consider shooting a drone which is hovering over your property. However, it is typically not legal to shoot a drone that is flying through the air.

Use birds to pick it out of the sky

Some police forces are training birds to catch drones out of the sky.

The birds are taught to catch drones if they are hunting for prey. They are training the birds to capture the drones from underneath which means that they are less likely to be injured by the fast spinning propellers.

You can watch a bird of prey in action in the video, below.

The risk of injury to a bird can be minimised but it is definitely not zero. So it may not be the best option for most people – simply because they don’t have access to a bird of prey.

Use bigger drones with a net

Science has been on this since 2019, where a variety of concepts have been presented. There are two primary ways that a drone can be captured and taken down with a net.

The first is that the drone is captured by a larger drone that is carrying a net. This can be seen in the video, below.

the alternative method for capturing a drone with a net is to fire the drone from either a gun that is ground-based or using another drone to fire the net towards the target drone. You can see this concept in the YouTube video, below.

both of these approaches seem to be relatively effective at capturing drones as long as you can get close enough to it to deploy the net. Also, the method may or may not be able to return the drone to the floor in a safe manner using a parachute. This would be useful for people who want to inspect the drone as soon as it is captured.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some answers to some commonly asked questions about taking down a drone.

Is it illegal to shoot a drone out of the sky?

Generally, it is illegal to shoot a drone out of the sky. The use of firearms to take down an unmanned aerial vehicle is illegal and can result in criminal prosecution.

Can I shoot down a drone hovering over my property?

No, you cannot shoot down a drone hovering over your property. There are a number of other things that you can do such as alerting the local authorities and trying to find pilot of the drone that you are not able to shoot down a drone which is hovering over your property.

Summary

In this article, we have covered everything you need to know about whether or not a laser pointer can take down a drone. It is very unlikely that a single commercial laser pointer is capable of taking down a drone but a very high powered laser pointer at a short distance or a number of laser pointers – like that experienced in a protest – may be able to heat up the drones electronics so that it lands.

Alternatively, the use of multiple laser pointers may also be able to disorientate the drone pilot to the point where they decide that it is safer to land because the first person view live stream of the flight has been compromised.

Using a laser pointer to take down a drone is relatively ineffective and it could land you in some legal issues as the legislation of the FAA also covers pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles not just pilots that are in control of an aircraft such as an aeroplane or a helicopter.

Never use a laser pointer on a drone.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!