Navy interested in laser flares
Recall the grisly final scene in the movie Dead Calm involving a flare gun? Picture the bright flares firing briefly over the doomed Titanic. Potentially dangerous in a confined space, brief in burning duration — these are the sorts of risks that Greatland Laser is hoping will prompt the maritime industry to switch from pyrotechnic flares — required by the U.S. Coast Guard and International Maritime Organization to be in every vessel’s emergency kit — to a battery-powered laser flare.
Greatland Laser has been offering such rescue lasers for years, but the company’s efforts have been gaining traction recently in private industry and perhaps the U.S. government. While pyrotechnic flares are still required equipment, Jim O’Meara of Greatland Laser hopes that the U.S. Navy is implementing the use of laser flares on board its vessels.
“We have been working closely with the Naval Life Raft Program,” O’Meara said. He is hopeful that the Navy will choose the EF 10 Strobe and Laser combination for use in lifeboats.
Tom Apple, life raft program manager in the Navy’s Combatant Craft Division, said in a statement that the Navy is seriously considering the use of non-pyrotechnic rescue flares:
“NAVSEA’s Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division has conducted testing on a variety of non-pyrotechnic emergency signal beacons as part of an initiative to reduce hazardous materials, improve efficacy, and reduce costs. Evaluating commercial off the shelf technologies that meet military specifications for an identified need in the Fleet, is one of the ways the Navy saves time and money on research and development.”
O’Meara extolled his product as enjoying every advantage over traditional pyrotechnics: laser flares “have the range and duration required for a successful recovery,” he said. “The laser flash stands out from any background lighting much better than any visual electronic signal device and you won’t burn your flesh or catch the woods on fire as the hazardous pyrotechnics do. There are also no carriage restrictions on commercial airlines and they are safe and friendly to the user and environment. You can also test the product at any time unlike regular flares.”
Laser beams themselves are not visible; they must be in contact with an object — cloud cover, the hull of a vessel or the eyes of a would-be rescuer, for example. In this sense the rescue laser is not unlike an emergency signaling mirror, the kind with a small hole in the center that allows the user to direct the beam at a target. Greatland Laser instructs the user in the same way: “Slowly move the laser back and forth across your target.”
Unlike a laser pointer, the kind familiar to anyone who has ever attended a slide-show presentation, Greatland lasers are vector-shaped, much like a transmitting beam from a radar signal; they fan out as they leave the unit. Thus, at 16 miles, the beam is some 6,000 feet wide, according to the company. (A laser pointer remains a point of light when transmitted.
The laser flare is supposedly safe for the would-be rescuer’s eyes, according to the company and the Navy’s independent tests, and the beam is mild enough not to cause a pilot to lose night vision.
The laser has a 72-hour burning life on two AA batteries. The company recommends using lithium batteries for longer storage life (five years) and for use in cold temperatures. Laser flares are waterproof and are equipped with a sighting device that allows the user to aim the beam at a vessel or aircraft. The beams are colored red or green.
In product tests in the Baltic Sea, conducted by the Swedish firm Protagia for Greatland Laser, the beams were visible at a distance of 31.5 miles to a helicopter crew flying at 140 knots between 1,500 and 1,750 feet. The pilots reported not being bothered by the flashing beams. (Daytime range is considered to be up to three miles.)
The Navy corroborated Greatland Laser’s claims with regard to the product’s benefits. In addition, the Navy acknowledged several environmental and safety factors the laser offers:
“Non-pyrotechnic beacons could reduce release of water contaminants such as perchlorates, increase cumulative signal time from minutes to days, and produce significant material and logistical cost savings.”
The statement identified several existing rafts that could accommodate such a product in its emergency kits: “U.S. Navy Mark-7 and Mark-8 life rafts, already unique in that they inflate with regular air instead of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, would become even more environmentally friendly with the inclusion of non-pyrotechnic beacons.”
The Greatland Laser product retails for $100 to $200, depending on options. As a complement, and not a legal requirement, such an expense may be daunting for some mariners or companies operating on thin margins.
Chinook Medical Gear, Inc., in Durango, Colo., offers a similar product that retails for about $240. The Green Rescue Laser Flare offers a lithium battery standard and makes similar claims as Greatland regarding safety, visibility at night, waterproofing and functionality.
Odeo Flare, based in Dorset, England, offers a green laser flare to the U.K. market. The company states that its laser flare is “designed with consideration to SOLAS requirements.” The company has applied for approval, but acknowledges that pyrotechnic flares are still a SOLAS requirement.
No life raft company surveyed currently offers a laser flare in its survival kits, although Roy Vargas, materials manager for EAM Worldwide, a maker of life rafts for the airline and maritime industries, said his company is currently evaluating their use in life rafts.