Air Force Develops Communications Lasers

"Inherently secure" lasers could be the future of wireless communication.

by Staff Writer / October 25, 2012

For years, the military has looked for a communications technology that can't be intercepted. Technology has advanced to where transmitting morse code-like messages isn't terribly useful or secure, and laying down ethernet cables in a war zone often is impractical or impossible.

But lasers could be the answer.

An infrared laser system called free space optical communications is being developed by the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and Fayetteville, Ark.-based Space Photonics. The beam is so narrow that it cannot be snooped on unless the snooper is directly in the beam's path, in which case the signal will stop. An attempt to intercept and retransmit the signal to fool the system into continuing transmission likely wouldn't work because the system functions as a “line of sight” device.

"It's inherently secure," said Terry Tidwell, chief engineer at Space Photonics, which recently signed a deal to commercialize its technology and sell it to the Department of Defense, NBC News reported. High bandwidth is another benefit to laser communications – while Wi-Fi signals can transmit megabits of data each second, an infrared laser beam can carry thousands of times more data.

Other companies are also picking up on the capabilities of laser communication technology, such as ITT Exelis, which received a $7 million contract to finish developing a ship-to-shore communications system for the Navy. By the end of next year, a company official said, the system should have a range of about 12 miles.

Laser based communications systems like these were first proposed in the 1970s, but their use was cost prohibitive, and fiber optic cable was found to be a more practical alternative. Current laser technology is limited to several miles of transmission through air, but the range can be extended to about 120 miles with the use of aircraft at high altiutude. Environmental factors, like fog, are still seen as technical barriers to the technology, but researchers have said they believe there is potential worth exploring.