What if, when absorbing incoming enemy small arms fire, an attack helicopter or aircraft needed to instantly radio target coordinates or intelligence data? The ability to quickly send vital information to ground commanders would help the helicopter under fire by allowing friendly forces to know what was happening and fight back. But what kind of new extremely high-bandwidth point to point communications technology could be used in this situation? Lasers.
Most weapons developers are 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 radio frequencies (RF) 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 communications 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 communications, 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.
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.