In the aftermath of the August riots in London, it appears the Home Office is looking at alternative measures for riot control. As reported in the Telegraph, one of these options is a ranged weapon that uses a laser to temporarily blind the target.
The manufacturer of this device, Photonic Security Systems Ltd, a Scottish company based in Sandbank Business Centre in Dunoon, appears to have originally designed this technology for use at sea against pirates. According to their brochure, the SMU100 can project a 4m square area at 500m range. Aside from the range specification, there is little information available with which to assess the safety of the device. A request under the Freedom of Information Act has been made to the Home Office in an attempt to ascertain some basic specifications.
To make a comparison with something more familiar: in the UK and most of Europe, laser pointer devices are limited to Class 2, i.e. in the visible range and <1mW power output. Without deliberately abusing the device, it would be almost impossible to cause long-term damage with these types of laser as the blink response normally occurs at around 0.25secs, well before permanent damage could occur. In other parts of the world, laser pointers up to 5mW are regulated for; while of low incidence there have been one or two reports of long term damage from device misuse.
Like the SMU100, these types of “dazzler” weapons have been used in military applications for some time with a range of weapons already developed. While they seem to operate at higher output power (Glare Mout device) as compared to the humble laser pointer, it appears it is standard practice for a lens to cause the beam to diverge over distance, hence not directly comparable with a standard collimated laser beam.
If the SMU100 follows the same principle of using a higher powered laser but divergent beam then the device should be safe in proper use. The flip-side is the device could potentially be dangerous if misused. For example, if using the specs from the above “Glare Mout” device, we can see it uses a Class 3B laser operating at 532nm with max 125mW power output. If such a device were used at very close range then the beam will have not diverged and the result would be a high risk of causing permanent blindness.
The value of these weapons in military settings is immediately obvious: one can conceivably control a number of given situations without being forced into shooting someone. In that sense, they could potentially reduce casualties on both sides of an encounter. In a civilian setting, decidedly different considerations come into play with serious questions over use of Tasers and CS spray / PAVA spray already in the media. In the US, the situation of misuse of less-than-lethal weapons is arguably worse with recent instances of Pepper spray abuse being of particular concern (UC Davis protesters being arbitrarily Pepper sprayed).
Before the SMU100 is authorised, there must be physical assurances built into the device to prevent accidental or deliberate misuse as without those assurances it seems we are destined to repeat the mistakes made with introduction of Tasers in the UK and take another step towards militarisation of our Police forces.