Chronicle Herald

Aviators around the world may be getting an update to their eyewear to protect them and their passengers from the threat of laser strikes.

Halifax company Metamaterial Technologies Inc. unveiled the latest innovation in nanotechnology at their Woodside Industrial Park facility in Dartmouth on Friday.

“These kinds of laser strikes are increasing, not only in power but also in the number of incidents,” said company founder and CE) George Palikaras during a press conference.

As he spoke, Palikaras held in his hand a Class 4 laser pointer capable of beaming its green 532-nanometre wavelength at a range of 70 kilometres. Lasers such as that cost between $100 and $200, with a power output capable of exceeding five milliwatts, and can pop balloons and light matches in seconds. It also looks like a light-sabre.

“In the case of aviation there is a copilot, so there is always a backup. But in cases where both pilots, rarely, could be lasered at the same time, you can understand the risk,” said Palikaras.

In 2014 MTI started working with Airbus and Lufthansa in order to develop large-scale anti-laser technology for the windscreens of their commercial aircraft. Further testing is still required for large-scale installation but MTI hopes their product can be put to use in the months to come.

And the federal government hopes so, too. Through the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency it has thrown its support behind the company with a $3 million loan.

“This support provided through ACOA will help MTI begin advanced manufacturing to produce and deliver metaAIR eyewear in large quantities,” said Darren Fisher, member of Parliament for Dartmouth-Coal Harbour.

The product looks just like a regular pair of aviator glasses but the clear lenses have an optical filter that shields the eyes by blocking 99.9 per cent of a Class 4 laser. The glasses have been tested in human trials since 2014.

MTI is not the only technology company to try and solve the problem of laser strikes, but according to Palikaras, the current solutions can limit people’s vision, like sunglasses that are too dark.

“What is innovative in our eyewear is that it does not affect the pilot’s vision. So when you put them on you can still see that green is green, blue is blue and red is red,” Palikaras told reporters. “So, intuitively, the pilot should not feel that he has anything on his face.

“Other than pilots we have had inquiries from the navy, for people that are working in the train industry. Believe it or not there have been attacks in Germany and Switzerland on trains.”

In situations where a single conductor must be able to discern between signal lights, these laser strikes can have dire consequences. Similar attacks have also targeted helicopters, including a June 2016 incident involving an EHS helicopter in Halifax.

According to Transport Canada there were 500 reported incidents involving aircraft. Ninety per cent of those attacks use the green, Class 4 laser.

In addition to the MTI’s 27 employees, the company hopes to fill 15 new full-time jobs in production, marketing, research and development.

The metaAIR eyewear will be sold through MTI’s partner companies and directly to industry buyers. So, the general public likely won’t be seeing these new aviators on the shelf at the Sunglass Hut for a long time.

But Palikaras did tell reporters that MTI is looking at other consumer applications.

“I don’t know if you are aware of colour-blind people? There is some idea of working on something to help them see colour again.”

As for that, we’ll have to wait and see.