Laser Weapons Are Here .. What About Laser Communications Sending Drone Video?
Video: Army Research Lab Scientist Describes Human Brain as Sensor Connecting With AI
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) What if, when absorbing incoming enemy small arms fire, an attack helicopter or aircraft needed to instantly radio target coordinates or intelligence data could be instantly and quickly sent to ground commanders in position to launch a crucial counteract with new forms of extremely high-bandwidth point to point communications technology?
Lasers. Most weapons developers are of course aware of fast-moving laser weapons technology increasingly showing promise with new high-kilowatt transmission able to incinerate, destroy or disable a wide range of enemy targets, but what about using lasers for communication? Raytheon’s Intelligence and Space, Advanced Concepts and Technology unit is now deeply immersed in research, development and testing of new applications of laser communications technology potentially able to introduce new tactical warfare concepts.
Existing RF frequencies already do something similar to a certain extent, insofar as they can send packets of data through various frequencies traveling quickly, yet the promise of laser coms can involve greater speed, data flow, precision-reception and bandwidth transmission. Also, Raytheon developers explain that laser coms are inherently less “jammable” and therefore more secure than RF, so the opportunity to leverage unobstructed, free-space streamlined connectivity afforded by lasers is intended to massively advance the technological curve.
“When you send transmissions through air, one of the biggest challenges is atmospheric distortion. Sometimes particles in the air can cause distortion, so data has to cut through and mitigate those anomalies or interference,” Jennifer Benson, Product Area Chief Engineer for Advanced Electronics, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, told The National Interest in an interview.
Raytheon developers tested this kind of laser communications technology at ranges more than 16km over a large body of water and through rough atmospheric conditions. Longer-range testing is expected in coming months, as this kind of technical possibility could connect drones to aircraft, aircraft to ground-based command and control centers or even missile-defense oriented sensor data beyond the earth’s atmosphere at some point.
The reason for less interference with laser comms, Benson explained, is because the laser transmission can incorporate both a transmit and receive path enabling information such as high-definition video to pass more efficiently through what might otherwise be atmospheric distortions. This technical prospect introduces a new technological paradigm for high-speed, precise point to point communication, bringing the possibility of reducing latency, increasing throughput and, perhaps of greatest significance, massively reducing transmission times.
“Our receiver is the size of a mobile phone that can be put in a lot of different areas, allowing air-to-ground and then possibly space-to-ground in the future. The receiver technology can incorporate free-space optical signals at 100 Gigabits per second, sending a message that could otherwise get garbled by atmospheric conditions. A transmitter is providing the energy and it is the receive path that has to collect it and receive the full message,” Benson explained.
Laser weapons can already incinerate enemy drones, intercept incoming missiles and possibly even destroy enemy ICBMs, and now, emerging technology seems to suggest that lasers can also securely and efficiently transmit video feeds and time-sensitive data through the atmosphere at the speed of light. Lasers are already being developed to fire from drones, and there is now new evidence that drone video feeds, for example, could be sent to nearby fighter jets, surveillance planes or ground control centers through laser communications.
Early experimentation and research underway at Raytheon Intelligence and Space, using laser communications and a small receiver, was able to move data through otherwise disruptive atmospheric conditions for 16km. Laser communications, Raytheon developers explain, enable secure point to point communication less “jammable” and less susceptible to atmospheric disturbance
“In 2013, a NASA lunar laser transmitted 622 Megabits per second. The technology is there and we are continuing to expand it and demonstrate it to increase bandwidth,” Benson said.
Developed through internal research and development, Raytheon’s laser comms technology is being further developed with the goal of reaching 100 Gigabits per second while using advanced electro-optics to mitigate atmospheric disturbance. Benson further explained that Raytheon’s intent has been to harness, build upon and push existing technologies to new levels of performance to achieve greater bandwidth, longer ranges and a higher speed and volume of data flow.
Interestingly, Raytheon innovators appear to be resolving some of the scientific challenges associated with earlier efforts to create free-space laser communication. U.S. Air Force-funded research at New Mexico State University more than a decade ago began some pioneering experimentation with laser-beam transmission. Researchers discovered that transmissions through an atmospheric bath accentuate what NMSU scientists called a “speckle pattern creating areas or darkness and areas of brightness that move around due to turbulence,” an NMSU research essay from as far back as 2007 explains. This phenomenon appears to be precisely what Benson referred to as the primary challenge Raytheon’s receiver technology is engineered to address.
In the NMSU essay, a scientist named Micheal Giles, professor of electrical engineered, is quoted explaining the phenomenon in terms of a “twinkle” of a star, explaining that as light passes through the atmosphere and encounters interference, it “interferes with itself, and that is why it will go darker and lighter, darker and lighter,”
“For high-speed data transmission by laser beam, the "twinkle" means loss of signal. Researchers have known that a partially coherent laser beam performs better through turbulence by reducing this interference. But previous methods of generating a partially coherent beam have had serious drawbacks for transmitting data,” the NMSU paper writes.
Raytheon’s laser communications research appears to have found ways to address and mitigate the impact caused by turbulence, therefore bringing the promise of this technology to a new level of promise.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.