29-05-2018 | By Nnamdi Anyadike

The global telecommunication industry is rapidly being transformed by the development and rollout of ‘free space optics (FSO)’. FSO is a line-of-sight technology that uses invisible beams of light to provide optical bandwidth connections. These enhanced connections can then send and receive voice, video, and data information in data-streams of up to several terabits per second.

Advocates of FSO technology say that laser optical communication systems offer a much narrower and more focused beam than traditional Radio Frequency (RF) solutions. In addition to higher data rates and more capacity, FSO also offers greater security and smaller, lighter and more affordable terminals.

DARPA ORCA official concept art.jpg

DARPA has sponsored over US$130 million in research towards this effort, with the ORCA and ORCLE programs. By US Federal Government Employee - DARPA ORCA Concept Art, Public Domain, Link.

A recent Market Insight Report forecast shows that the global FSO market can be expected to grow at a CAGR of 38.9%, from $86.2 million in 2016 to $1.2 billion in 2024. The report cites the reduced cost of deployment; resistance against electromagnetic interference; high bit rates with less or no errors and high security as some of the key factors which are giving technical advantage to FSO communications and triggering the growth of the global market.

The cost of 3G and 4G connectivity through FSO is being reduced. And as a consequence, its application is growing in the defence and healthcare sectors. Research by companies in Germany and the US appear to be leading the way. Latest developments include a key innovation in data transmission by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the European telecommunications vendor ADVA Optical Networking SE that was announced in May. This satellite based innovation is being touted as a significant milestone in the development of stable, high-speed satellite communications.

In a systems test, ADVA and DLR set a new record for data transmission using free-space laser technology. The test simulated a geostationary satellite link and achieved a data throughput of 13.16Tbps over a distance of 10.45km. Commenting on the results Christoph Günther, Director of DLR’s Institute of Communication and Navigation said, "One of our main goals is to enable global connectivity, and this test is a major contributor to achieving that goal.” Both the transmission range and the speed of data transmission with 13.16Tbit/s are almost eight times as high as the previous DLR record.

Other developments are claimed by Honeywell and Ball Aerospace. In April, both companies announced that they are collaborating to develop and produce high-performance, high-reliability optical communication datalinks that will enable satellite operators to deliver improved capacity and data rate connectivity. Together, the two companies will establish volume production of optical terminals for communications from ground to space, spacecraft to spacecraft and spacecraft to aircraft. Initially, the two companies will target the US market.

FSO technology though does face some obstacles. For example, its range can be limited by adverse atmospheric and climatic conditions, including fog and to some extent heavy rain and snow. However, these limitations are now being overcome. ADVA and DLR claim that despite the extreme atmospheric turbulence witnessed during the test their platform managed to compensate for it and transfer huge amounts of data. ADVA’s FSP 3000 CloudConnect platform was used for the trial, while DLR supplied the free-space terminal technology.

The US based Airborne Wireless Network (AWN), meanwhile, is working on using commercial aircraft for its Wholesale Carrier Network that are capable of generating wireless internet signals. It has formed various partnerships to develop; design; test and manufacture a customized hybrid synchronized laser-based communication system. The system will serve as the link between aircraft and ground stations to form a chain of signal repeaters and routers within its airborne mesh network concept.

In December, GE Aviation became AWN’s latest partner after signing an agreement to provide tactical-grade inertial reference units with embedded GPS that AWN will use for heading, pointing and stabilising its communications system. AWN says that it has made a lot of progress toward developing the FSO element. And in May 2017, it demonstrated the first successful ‘proof of concept’ test when it utilised two Boeing 767 aircraft and RF in an air-to-air/air-to-ground broadband link. The next phase will be to increase the bandwidth with the addition of the FSO element and also undertake a 20 aircraft test.

AWN sees the most significant and target applications as being within the wireless wholesale broadband business model for the telecommunications and internet service providers of broadband capacity. “By employing the FSO, we will potentially employ a 10-gigabit path initially and a path to 100-gigabit bandwidth,” says the company. The company intends to begin the system rollout shortly after the 20 aircraft test.

As internet traffic continues to rise, the global free space optics market will continue to increase. And in that event, even more exciting innovations and free space optics applications can be expected from within the FSO technology space in the coming years.


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By Nnamdi Anyadike

I have 30 years experience as a freelance business, economy and industry journalist, concentrating on the oil, gas and renewable energy, telecommunications and IT sectors. I have authored a number of well received in-depth market intelligence reports. And I have also spoken at conferences.