How Laser Communications Innovation is Finally Coming of Age and Driving Innovation in Defense

How Laser Communications Innovation is Finally Coming of Age and Driving Innovation in Defense

Radio is a well-established technology. For over 100 years, it has been widely used: in communication, radar, navigation, remote control, remote sensing, and other respects. It is popular because it works; it is reliable. And yet laser has shown itself to be a superior medium of communication. Indeed, the laser-vs-radio debate is already getting old. What is new – and what will truly change the debate – are the transformations currently taking place in laser telecommunications – transformations which will drive innovation in defense.

The example of a link between Mars and Earth illustrates the difference of beam divergence between RF and laser. Radio waves and light are both electromagnetic waves, having very distant frequencies. However, when light is emitted by a laser, it is concentrated in a beam directed in one direction and not very divergent, unlike radio transmitters which diffuse the wave in a much more open cone.

It is perhaps worth pausing to remind ourselves of what laser’s existing advantages over radio are. Laser communications offer faster data transfer, and greater data capacity. And by virtue of their structure and size, lasers are almost impossible to detect, intercept, or jam. Interference is also rare. Lasers do not ‘leak’ in the same way radio does, and, as against the broad transmission style of radio, they transfer information along a very narrow beam, which cannot overlap with any other.

But it is the new innovations in the field, rather than these advantages, that will provide a technical and thus competitive advantage for companies and the military. That is why laser technology is becoming such a key field in defense. The Chinese are investing heavily, and taking big steps forward in this area, but the U.S. military had the foresight and pragmatism to realize in the 1990s that the most exciting developments in defense and defense-adjacent technology were taking place not in the military space but in the commercial world. Commercial organizations were showing themselves to be better at creating technology, machinery and equipment of a quality and at a speed that was greater than could be achieved by the military itself. As a result, the Department of Defense began to distribute contracts more widely, creating incentives for further innovation in technology relevant to the military. The most promising innovations in laser communications are therefore driven by smaller companies with one foot in the commercial sector and one in defense.

Lasers have already proven their ability to enable robust satellite communications in atmospheric turbulence. The use of Cailabs’ optical ground station (OGS) technology to enable high-throughput space telecommunications networks has gained recognition from organizations such as the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, AID, DGA, SSC, and CONTEC.

One of the major innovations in the field is ‘light-shaping’ - the manipulation of multiple light beams for the purposes of enhancing the reliability of data transfer, the quantity of data that can be transferred, and the breadth of applications of laser communications. Pioneered and developed by Cailabs, it has transformative potential, in part due to its ability to get around a problem once thought to be intractable: the problem of atmospheric turbulence. The variability of the atmosphere, involving differences in pressure, temperature and composition, deviates the optical paths of laser beams, affecting their shape, quality, and intensity. In other words, atmospheric turbulence degrades the quality of the laser link. Thanks to innovations in laser comms, however, this problem has been solved.

Since the invention of the laser, programs to develop offensive laser applications, such as anti-structure laser weapons, have attracted great interest. The arrival of new, easily implemented laser sources at the end of the 1990s and the growing presence of drones on the battlefield since 2010 have given new credibility to these programs. They show the potential value of laser Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) in the field.

Innovations like this one are driving uptake. Outside of the work that Cailabs is doing, there are such things as the European Data Relay System (EDRS), a European constellation of geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites that relay information and data by laser between satellites, spacecraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and ground stations. Laser links are evolving elsewhere: satellite-to-ground, ground-to-ground, ship-to-satellites.

The European Data Relay System (EDRS) is an independent European satellite system that reduces time delays in the transmission of large quantities of data. EDRS uses laser to relay information to and from non-geostationary satellites, spacecraft, other vehicles and fixed Earth stations that otherwise are not able to permanently transmit/receive data. (Image: European Space Agency)

And increasingly, the problems that laser communications can solve are industrial, rather than technical. The technical problem of pointing accuracy, for instance – especially in the case of satellite-to-satellite communication, where two points on two objects moving at great speed through vast areas have to find one another – has been solved. The problem of protecting human eyesight from laser damage has also been solved. Where once the problems in laser technology were chiefly academic and scientific, we now have challenges in scaling, in industrialization. What was recently experimental is now operational. And we thus find ourselves on the very cusp of a transition from radio to laser for numerous use cases. That is why interest is growing. The superiority of laser over radio in highly consequential fields, such as defense, is undeniable.

Though laser technology has advantages over radio, and those advantages are growing as innovation accelerates, what is essential to realize is that they need not be in competition. Rather, laser is a complementary technology, rather than a rival. Radio is and for some time will remain the workhorse of tactical, strategic and other forms of communication. But in certain contexts, and for specialized purposes, laser has an important role to play.

This article was written by Jean-François Morizur, CEO of Cailabs. For more information, visit here .