Here's What You Need to Know: Recent advances mean that it should be possible to send data from a drone to a plane or ship using lasers.
Laser weapons can already incinerate enemy drones, intercept incoming missiles and possibly even destroy enemy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). 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,” Jennifer Benson, Product Area Chief Engineer for Advanced Electronics, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, told The National Interest in an interview.
Developed through internal research and development, Raytheon’s laser communications 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 Michael Giles, a professor of electrical engineering, 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.
This article first appeared in March 2021.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Naoto Anazawa