The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates laser light show displays. In addition, some states and localities require registration or regulation of the lasers, show equipment and/or the laser operators.

This page will discuss the federal FDA regulations, unless otherwise noted. For states and localities, see this page.

If you have any questions, please contact the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, as CDRH is the final arbiter of FDA regulations and requirements.

What laser shows are regulated

FDA regulates any laser shows done in public or “entered into commerce,” that use lasers over 5 milliwatts.

If you do a show in your home, for friends and family, this would NOT be under FDA jurisdiction (though of course you should still use safe equipment and procedures.)
  • If you buy a commercially-available laser projector for home use, you appear to need a variance before the seller can turn over the projector to you. Under FDA regulations, a laser light show projector cannot be sold unless the buyer has applied for AND RECEIVED a variance from FDA, allowing the buyer to perform a laser light show. There appears to be no exception for selling projectors to persons only using them in the home.
  • If you make your own laser projector and use it only in your home (e.g., it is not "entered into commerce") then both the projector and the show would not be required to be reported to FDA.

You can use lasers under 5 mW for a public laser show, and this would NOT be under FDA jurisdiction. However, 5 mW is generally so dim that it is not worth doing for a public/commercial show. Also, even if you use lasers under 5 mW, it still may be illegal under FDA, state and/or local law to allow the beam to be aimed at or near any person (e.g., no audience scanning).

Once a show with lasers over 5 mW is done in public or for commercial purposes, the FDA has jurisdiction. For example, if there is an admission fee to the show or to the overall environment (a concert or disco). This also applies if someone is being paid for the laser lights, or for a function that includes the laser lights (such as being a DJ). While it is unclear if FDA has jurisdiction over a completely free show done in public, the agency would normally assert its jurisdiction since it exists to help protect the public.

Requirements for outdoor shows

If a laser show is performed outdoors and the beams are not terminated (e.g., meaning that beams can enter navigable airspace), FDA will require the laser show to be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in advance for review. FAA requests at least 30 days notice in order to study the show and how it relates to air traffic. FAA will issue either a "letter of non-objection", or they will object to one or more elements of the show. FDA will not allow any FAA-objected elements to be included in laser shows.

A federal law prohibits laser pointers from knowingly being aimed at aircraft, or at the flight path of an aircraft. Technically this applies only to "pointers", and laser light shows are different from pointers as defined in the law. However, it is still general Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policy to object to visible laser beams knowingly being aimed at or near aircraft, whether they are from pointers or laser show projectors.

Beams will either need to be terminated, or spotters (or other FAA-reviewed methods) will be used to ensure that beams are not aimed at or near aircraft.

When are laser beams adequately terminated? FAA has written:

"…laser beams must be terminated at the site and will not enter navigable airspace. 'Terminated', in this instance means that all beams are confined by an object found suitable by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has no effect on Air Traffic. No beams may penetrate through, or be reflected from, the terminating surface and [be] allowed to enter any airspace useable by aircraft and/or helicopters, including that airspace used for arrival and departure from any airports, heliports and/or sea lanes."

Whether beams are terminated relies in part on whether the termination surface fully stops the beams. For example, no beams on trees if you can see sky through the leaves (including when wind is blowing) and no beams reflecting off building windows if the beams will enter airspace.

Termination also relies on whether aircraft could reasonably be expected to fly between the laser source and the termination point. Especially consider helicopter traffic — could a police or medical helicopter fly or land in the beam path in case of an emergency?

Federal requirements to perform a laser light show

The laser equipment must be reported to FDA by the manufacturer, the laser show user or operator must obtain a “variance” which gives permission to “vary” from FDA’s normal laser power requirements, and the laser show user or operator must file a Laser Light Show Report with FDA.

In addition, you must file an Annual Report each year by September 1.

The four required documents are discussed below.

How to submit

FDA has a webpage with information on the Variance Application Process. It describes what forms to send, and where to send them.

Note that FDA requests "an optional standardized cover sheet that applicants are encouraged to submit with all variance applications." It is a good idea to include this cover sheet.

Questions and answers

For additional information

See the Links and Resources page. The pages that are listed will have additional links, such as to specific FDA documents and forms, and to helpful forms and checklists.