Optical Communication: A New Horizon for IoMT
The Air Force and sister services will depend on the Internet of Military Things (IoMT) to improve joint effectiveness and better management of battlespaces across the air, land, and sea domains. The arrival of optical communication (OC) technology offers improved security and reliability while making the constraints of cabling or licenses to operate particular radio frequencies redundant. The higher bandwidth and faster transmission rates made possible by OC will facilitate expanded use cases of the space domain and, as a result, reshape both the horizon for IoMT and achieving information superiority. Moreover, OC technology has implications extending further beyond military communication. It will allow for the design and mission capability optimization of future space vehicles, warfighting platforms, and ground-based command elements themselves.
It’s the Bandwidth, Stupid
As the Air Force evolves towards a new way of warfare, IoMT will create a still more significant demand for data and communications connectivity across a range of warfighting platforms and units of force. Yet, existing connections cannot meet user requirements for greater bandwidth. In addition, the radio frequency (RF) spectrum currently used to transmit data and video is increasingly overcrowded. In any case, inherent limitations with RF for data processing place a cap on its long-term utility in IoMT. In short, the tremendous – and still growing – volumes of data needed for intelligence, surveillance, tracking, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) in real-time with high reliability by warfighters in contested environments is no longer viable using legacy RF solutions alone.
The challenge of data and communications connectivity is especially pronounced when the growing role and importance of the space domain for the Air Force at the operational and tactical levels of warfare is considered. As the space power architecture is expanded to create a new, more resilient navigation capability to buttress the Global Positioning System (GPS), to provide persistent all-weather surveillance and tracking of moving time-sensitive targets, and to assume a significant role in mission tasking, prioritization and processing critical for preserving the Air Force’s ability to operate at the speed of relevance, a new means of long-haul, point-to-multi-point communications capable of transporting high data volumes securely between satellites, ground elements, and remotely operating warfighting platforms is necessary.
The Arrival of Optical Communication Technology is a Game-Changer
OC technology, anticipated to reach sufficient maturity to be operationally fieldable within the decade, offers a game-changing alternative to current wireless RF communications. OC can deliver the high throughput, point-to-multipoint communication with minimal data loss in transmission over vast distances – through space and air – that is increasingly required for time-sensitive operations by the Air Force today. OC, essentially invisible lasers that project light beams tightly packed with data, offer higher density data transmission per second than legacy RF technology so that receiver terminals can receive more data simultaneously through a single downlink. Removing the need for data compression, the time taken to receive data via bandwidths offered by OC outperforms RF communication by as much as 100 times.
Existing OC technology, for example, has demonstrated the ability to port almost 2 gigabits per second, but this capacity is expected to reach terabits per second. In comparison, the RF spectrum, which is overcrowded and prone to clandestine interception and jamming measures, can port 100 megabits per second using 4G networks and up to 10 gigabits per second with 5G. 5G offers significant potential for military users in IoMT but has underlying security concerns that need continuous management, whereas OC offers a more secure wireless connection. This is possible because although optical connections emit stronger signals, the light beams projected are narrow and invisible. Hence, the likelihood of interception or interference is tremendously more challenging for hostile actors.
Using multiple OC transmitters and receivers makes secure point-to-multi-point topologies possible, translating into higher bandwidth availability and service reliability with the appropriate design-level application. For example, a central overhead node in geostationary earth orbit (GEO) performing as a relay link can aggregate and distribute data from all other nodes in low earth orbit (LEO) to ground elements. By providing inter-satellite links to rapidly distribute data between space vehicles and space-to-ground links to move data directly or via a relay link to ground elements and, potentially aided by RF communication, even remote warfighting platforms, OC finally makes possible the use of space-based ISTAR in real-time. Moreover, as OC modules require less volume, weight, and energy than RF technology, its adoption will free up payload availability for sub-systems on space vehicles and warfighting platforms or make them smaller, lighter, and more easily deployable.