Hacking a Streetlight with Lasers

$20, some spare parts and a bit of mischief was a small price for [Chris] to pay for a reprieve from light pollution with this remote control laser hack. The streetlight in front of his house has a sensor that faces westward, and flips the lamp on once the sun has disappeared over the horizon. As it turns out, [Chris's] third floor window is due west of this particular lamp, meaning he takes the brunt of its illumination but also conveniently places him in a prime location for tricking the sensor.

According to [Chris], the lamp’s sensor requires two minutes of input before it will switch off and stay off for around 30 seconds before cycling on again. The lamp does not zap straight to full brightness, though; it takes at least a minute to ramp up. [Chris] recalled a hack from a few years ago that essentially used LED throwies tacked onto the sensors with putty to shut off lamps for a guerrilla drive-in movie, but the sensors on those lamps were at the base and easily accessed. [Chris] needed to reach a sensor across the block and nearly three stories tall, so he dug around his hackerspace, found a 5V 20mA laser diode, and got to work building a solution.

[Chris] 3D printed a holder for the laser and affixed it via a mounting bracket to the wall near his third floor window, pointing it directly at the street lamp’s sensor. He plugged the laser’s power supply into an inexpensive remote control outlet, which allowed him to darken the street lamp at a touch of a button. This is certainly a clever and impressive hack, but—as always—use at your own risk. Check out a quick demo video after the break.

106 thoughts on “Hacking a Streetlight with Lasers

  1. If the city he lived in actually had proper street lights that sent the light down instead of everywhere this would not be a problem. he needs to get everyone around there to complain to the city to demand they change the streetlight out to something that does not blast into their homes. That is the ultimate hack, to hack the government into bending to your will.

    1. Come to think of it, that is exactly what my neighborhood did. I live next to an elementary school parking lot. People didn’t like the newly installed lights so we enlisted a government-bureaucrat fluent resident to write an appropriate letter to the administration. Within a couple of months there were simple shields installed. The payoff for the school district was now people actually are willing to leave their blinds open and can easily see ne’er-do-wells, which was the point of the lights being installed anyway.

    2. And who is going to pay for that? Most cities and municipalities can’t even afford to keep the roads in decent shape, or fix their decaying road infrastructure. They aren’t going to give half a shit if a street light is too bright.

      1. You’d be surprised what a broke city will spend money on (okay, maybe you wouldn’t).

        In my town, we’re constantly warned of the imminent threat to local police, firefighters, and teachers because of the lack of revenue, yet the city has spent the past year building new sidewalks anywhere and everywhere they can find to stick them and recently built a 30 million dollar “fitness park” downtown that no one uses.

        In my experience, if program, service, or item x could be considered by anyone to be (even slightly) wasteful… then it’s right up the government’s alley.

        1. A city will often stick the property owner for the cost of the sidewalk in front of their property. So it is no money out of the city’s budget.

    3. “That is the ultimate hack, to hack the government into bending to your will.”

      The ultimate hack should always involve the KISS principle. The most simple solution to a problem is always the best. Therefore, bending the government to your will can never be the ultimate hack.

  2. interesting hack, but i wouldn’t do it.
    first of all, the light is there for a reason. shutting it down is selfish and can hurt others.
    second, if the city finds out about a not working street light, they will sent someone to fix it. after 2 or 3 times they will figure out that someone is messing with it.
    and third. that looks like a Sodium-vapor lamp. as far as i know, they don’t like beeing switched on and off very often, and especially not in short periods.
    so this could also count as damage to public property.

    1. why would ‘the city’ have the right to shine light into his home but not otherwise?
      poor lamp design is not a valid excuse, he isn’t doing anything more that they do, of course this should be the final solution if anything else won’t work

    2. city workors don’t fix street lights at night. if he sets his laser to turn on at dusk and off at dawn they’ll never figure out why it doesn’t work.

    3. Ancient civilizations have long used curtains to reduce the amount of light coming in the window. Only the facebook generation would be so self-centered as to remove security and safety to the rest of their neighbors so they can get another hour of sleep. Heck, move to Detroit, Chris. Most of the street lights don’t work. Very high crime, but those are just your neighbors checking the security of your home and car locks on an hourly basis. smh @ this one… You folks living in the city that want to raise chickens, indoor carp, and see stars need to just move to the country.

      1. The reason why Detroit doesn’t have streetlights in some areas isn’t that they don’t work. It is because they were removed entirely to save money some years ago.

        Anyway the correlation to high-crime Detroit and their streetlight situation falls flat. There was no noticeable change in crime after streetlights were removed.

        Finally, to seal the deal on outing your ignorance. Detroit has huge amounts of abandoned lots. Urban renovation projects that turn those lots into urban gardens, sometimes complete with chicken coops and tiny ponds (usually for coy) have had a dramatic positive effect on reducing crime.

      2. facebook generation? What entails the facebook generation and what does facebook have to do with this. I lived in a building and had a similar issue.. I however recruited some friends and one of them had a tow truck and we ripped the thing right out of the ground and dumped it at the city’s lot. they replaced it once and then we did it again and they never put another one back. This was in the 80′s long before facebook. before you go and lump 1.5 billion people into a group and call us ignorant and selfish think twice..I prefer to be refereed to as cunning and sometimes malicious thank you very much.

        1. i also suggest you go back to “The Tricky Tumblers 2″ as it seems you’re a pro at that. And that is social hacking.

  3. Nice hack, indeed. I think, that “strobe light” is more annoying than continuous light. Of course, from a light pollution rescuers only roller curtains. But always is fun to hack something and share about it.

    Btw, interesting how other people and neighbors react to this “alien conspiracy” about street light blink? :)

    Furthermore the red laser light is treasonable. I think the sunligth controller uses a simple LDR(??) And how the lamp controller would act to IR laser?

    Where I live is a street lamps near, wich mostly use sodium-vapor lamps, but near by me is kindergarten, that in night time enlight its area due to safety. They use a f***g metal halide lamp, wich “cold” light is a more bad and annoying than yellow sodium-vapor light.

    1. I don’t think they meant that it constantly strobes – instead just characterizing the lamps behaviour. One would assume once the laser is turned off the lamp starts after 30 seconds, but if the laser is constantly on the lamp stays constantly off…

    2. You guys have nacht kindergarten? I guess it’s easy on teachers, what with the naps being longer. When I was young, I used to kick out the street lights. Some mercury vapor street lights will still blink out for a minute before they restart when jiggled. But kicking telephone poles as a teen gave me a lasting issue with heel pain.

      So has anyone tried putting a light on a rod sticking up from a polebot so that it can climb the pole and shine down into an upward-facing light sensor?

    3. We prefer white light over that hideous sodium light any day. Most all commercial areas are lit up white. There are no advantages (life, eff. etc.) over the whiter Halide lights. Now that it’s Halloween it’s very apparent that Sodium light is the colour of Hell, hell it’s even in the Bible.
      The power company is usually in the streetlight repair business, and never at night where they would see many more that need their attention. They don’t replace lights on a predictive basis, you have to go to a website or call it in to dispatch in a state hundreds of miles distant. I’ve seen lights out for over a year many times. We pay $8-10 dollars per month per pole in taxes for this. Many city centers are lit by money greedy committees in bed with union electricians for an exponential increase of light willing to be paid for (us, linear cost). Those photos from space with everything ablaze below lighting the underside of the adjacent module are frightening. In adjacent counties we have LED lights which are white and downward only but then they went hog wild in one town with Sodium lights in globes redundant to cobra-head ones on the poles. Globes should be banned on the globe! In our state a new law specifies efficiencies over a given area that make shielding mandatory, yet one highway-street in our town just got gaudied up with Sodium lights in cheap plastic “historic” poles with globes.

  4. Ah yes, more dark corners, that’s exactly what today’s society needs. But hey, as long as one guy is happy, who cares.

    1. You know what people do where I live, they use a magical device you may have heard of… its called….a torch.. yes, I know its amazing…

      Seriously street lamps do not make you safer, and the only time they are really needed is on the dark of the moon, the rest of the time I find the night bright enough to see without, the exception being when there are street lamps which kill my night vision and mean I can’t see into the shadows!

        1. If you had actually looked over those search results, you’d see they are quite mixed. And because having these lights 1) uses electricity, 2) Annoys residents and 3) causes light pollution, I think they’re hard to justify.

          That said, he should have gone to his city council instead.

    2. “In 1996, the National Institute of Justice published an assessment of crime and violence and considered the case of lighting outside ATM machines. The report posited that while an ATM user might feel safer when the ATM and its immediate surrounding area are well lit, this same lighting may make the patron more visible to passing offenders. A report from 2000, written by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, presented the effect of increased lighting levels in Chicago alleyways. In a one-year analysis after the upgrading and installation of brighter lights, the group cited an increase of 21 percent in reported offenses. Index offenses increased 14 percent (from 119 to 136), property offenses increased 20 percent (from 30 to 36) and non-index offenses increased 24 percent (from 279 to 347).”

  5. What about a repair man trying to work out why the lamp keeps going off and looking around for clues? He could end up looking straight up the laser.
    I know that some people will see this as a blow for freedom, and sticking it to the man, but in practice this could expose an innocent person to potential harm without warning.

    1. While gas, electricity and water guys are on call and work 24/7 the guy whose job is to fix street lamps is not. 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. His pension isn’t going to be enough for him to get his ass off the couch at 11 pm to fix it.

      1. My laser pointer is 5mW and clearly states that staring at it may damage my eyesight so I exercise my choice not to. This guy is just shining it out the window to show people how clever he is.

        1. Starring that’s the point. A visible 5mW laser is considered safe because accidnetal exposure to the beam should not result in permanent damage. Damn you might as well say that pencils are dangerous because you can stab someone with them.

        2. In reality, beam divergence on most consumer grade lasers will will spread significantly over the 10m/30ft or more being discussed.
          Any laser under 10mW would exhibit minimal beam power in the aperture of of your eye at those distances.

    2. This.. is the most silly comment to for at least the last 10 years I imagine.

      Here’s one; what if it’s windy and a piece of foil gets in the way and it reflects the laser into the eye of a pilot who crashes a boeing on a nuclear powerplant.?

      1. AT some point it will bet knocked/slip/come undone/get moved/hit by a model helicopter, whatever, and end up going off target. Then its going to end up where ever. It just seems completely irresponsible and gets the hacking community bad press which we don’t need.

          1. I don’t know how it works in the US, but over here you can guarantee that if something will go wrong then at some point it will do and I don’t think that an individual has the right to take a chance, even one that small with somebody else’s health.

  6. You shouldn’t have to mess around like this with streetlights in the uk, just approach your local council and they are obliged to look into restricting/changing the light path so that it’s not affecting you.

    1. When I lived in the UK I had a quad key that would open the access hatch at the base of the pole. I used to just go out and trip the breaker. It’d take them a month or so to get it fixed, and then I’d just do it again. In my defense, this light was affecting my sleep pattern to the point where I was becoming depressed. It was so damn bright in my room at night that I could read a book. Under the covers. Wearing sunglasses.

      Okay, so the bit about covers and sunglasses was a bit exaggerated, but the rest is true. You could read a book.

      1. We have one of the typical UK streetlights outside our house and the height puts it in the center of our bay window so the room is always lit up at night. The council wont do anything.

      2. Ever heard of curtains? Or eyemasks even.

        Not blaming you, but the argument that you can’t sleep inside a house seems.. iffy.

        1. Yes, because I should be the one to spend money on expensive blackout curtains or w/e when the council refuses to do anything. Right. That house was there long before the damn streetlight was.

    2. I sent them an e-mail once, it’s not normal I can read a book at night in the garden. Oh, and I cast shadows. When I leave the smallest slit when I close my curtains, the entire room is lit up.
      Do you know what their answer was? Nothing. They totally ignored it. Obliged, yeah… there are light pollution laws, but they are just dead letters.

      1. Just the one email? Wow, you’re persistent in getting what you want :-D

        My only answer is try harder, make an official complaint, don’t do it by email go to the council offices and make a real complaint/request in person.

        1. The problem is that it takes less effort to hack a physical solution than to try and work within the confines of the local bureaucracy.

  7. Chris needs to move to where a street light is not shining into his window. Chris also needs to quit screwing with street lights too.

  8. Or, you know, install blinds. That said they should really change the design of that lamp. Or at least the brightness. We have a street lamp right outside our living room window and it doesn’t bother us because the spread is much lower and the bulb is not peeking out of the screen.

    1. They’d come to replace it, then notice what happened, then start an investigation.

      And anyway, if you want to shoot objects shoot all the damn CCTV cams. And I have yet to see that happen, speedtrap cams yes but never CCTV.

  9. Does anyone have window shades anymore.
    I can close mine and have almost total dark in my bedroom for the exception of the light of the alarm clock and the small nightlight in the bathroom so I don’t stub my toe when getting up for a late night piss.

  10. Something that didn’t make it to this article is that I like to sit on my sidewalk, and that is more pleasant when the streetlight is off. The light functions normally most of the time.

  11. Our old apartment had a light (lighting nothing but an easement with no access, by the way) that would turn on at dusk and off at dawn. That damn thing had a horrible hum, and happened to be mounted right outside the master bedroom window.

    It was such a relief when the power would go out at night. Luckily our power was kinda flaky anyway.

  12. The hack is interesting and fun but I don’t think it’s the right solution. Just buy some blackout curtains.

    If something happens in that area (crash/attack/whatever) and they find out that the light was out because it had been tampered with, this guy could end up in a lot of trouble.

    1. Give me enough money the hookers can congregate at my place. I have my own yard light not one furnished by the power company. That way I turn it off if there’s something interesting in the night sky, and the hookers can walk around nude if I tell them to. I have a rural residence and the girls can get by doing that.

  13. I love how everyone’s saying:

    “Buy curtains” (But that’s not hacking!)
    “It’s illegal” (Sometimes hacking is! Or did we forget how not to get caught?)

    Cool hack – my dad lives “in the back woods” of MS, and the city put a light in a spot on his property that drives him crazy. We’ve talked about shooting it out, but he doesn’t want to deal with the legal ramifications.

    This would be an excellent way to “bend the rules” – it wouldn’t be a safety issue for the poor little children nor would it affect the 99%.

    :oP

    1. Good luck! Aiming the laser is hard. You should add in some fine adjustment screws.
      Everyone is saying curtains, but curtains don’t help when you are sitting underneath the light. This hack is to improve the enjoyment of my street at night.

  14. Only a real nerd has that much trouble to dim a street light
    A real hacker would have used his 1kW CO2 laser to fry the light detector.
    A practical guy would have used an air rifle.
    A redneck would have chopped down the lamp pole or cut the cable.
    A terrorist would destroy the local power plant.

  15. First: If you request it in I my city they will install a shroud on the light standard to aim its output towards the street and avoid the situation you are in. These just clamp around the frame and can be adjusted as needed. You might want see if that service is available in your region.

    Two: In your video you can clearly see the beam in the window from the street. In case of rain or fog that would be a dead giveaway. If the sensor is a generic silicon photo-diode or such you could use an invisible 800-900nm laser diode instead. Silicone responds well at these wavelengths assuming there is no optical filter in front of it. Also the IR laser would spread (no collimating optics unlike the laser pointer or you can design your own) making it easy to align and offer better eye safe levels.

    Three: at any rate you do have to worry about being eye safe should your clamp move unintentionally.

    Four: with your present setup I assume there are no neighbors on the other side of the street, in case your beam misses the sensor and ends up shining in their room???

    Five: buy curtains. They are legal too…..

  16. Or, move to Ocean Shores, WA, aside from “downtown” there aren’t any street lights. You can see plenty of stars when the sky is clear and there’s no moon. It’s quite dark.

  17. Yet another “hack” that ignores the basic lessons of kindergarten: mind your own business, and keep your hands to yourself. To put it another way, if it’s not your property, you have no business fooling around with it without permission.

    1. It does tell you something about people doesn’t it ? you know that hacks such as this one (and/or potentially dangerous) get the most interest ?? Not that I am saying it doesn’t deserve it – it’s got more of a hack in hack than a simple led blinky that serves no real purpose or something that uses a raspberry PI to do something that requires only a humble attiny45 etc. Apparently we’re not that much different from the rest of population

    2. Sorry to bust your law abiding bubble, but if a streetlight is causing significant disturbance to me or my family then it BECOMES my business.

  18. Chuck Norris is upvoted here.

    This hack needs an Arduino, so the lamp doesn’t keep energizing, that sucks up a ton of energy loading the start capacitor.
    Waiting for the 555 timer guys to flame me here….

    Good luck getting someone to come out and adjust or shield it.
    Most power companies are now charging 75 bucks or so, to the complainers account to just shut them up.
    And we are in a dark sky rated area…

  19. LOL, Did this as a prank in 2003 here in Portugal :)
    A whole neighbourhood went dark just because of a single cell.
    They don’t use cells anymore, either timers or radio controlled.

    1. This reminds me of the development of SMPSUs in the UK. One of the early designs only used to sample 1/4 of the mains waveform and used a whacking great cap to cover the off time. Terrible design, and it had the side effect of making the mains so lopsided that it turned on all the streetlights in the area.

  20. Or…

    You could just put up aluminum foil on the window, then duct tape black plastic bags over it. As a bonus it makes it harder for the NSA. At least that is what the voices in my head are telling me.

  21. I have to say, hackaday has grown over the years. No longer is it a place where ignorant people berate women, it’s a place where ignorant people berate everyone. You guys really know every single detail to this story and have come up with many stellar suggestions that haven’t already been thought of. Congratulations.

  22. I like it, especially because it leaves out the getting arrested and fine for destruction of property. Now the next logical step would be to figure out a way of tricking the sensor if you don’t have line of site to it.

    1. Thats what i’m trying to figure out! The light in front of our house is bright as all hell! I just want to turn it off at times of meteor showers, etc. I thought of using a long pole to put a box over it. Temporarily but it would probably catch fire. Might just use the pole idea to temporarily put a light on t top of the sensor to fake it out on those nights. But seeing as how some people brought up the good points of legal ramifications if some kid got hit or a car accident…. Now i dunno ;-(

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