Almost all the data connections we use in daily life, such as WiFi, Bluetooth or 4G, are based on radio-frequency electromagnetic waves. But this technology could be coming to the end of its useful life. It’s time for something new: laser-satellite communications. Using optical systems via satellites makes communication faster, more secure and cheaper.
TNO Netherlands is working hard on this new form of optical communication, and researchers have high expectations of it. “You can send much more information using light,” explains Ivan Ferrario, senior programme manager at TNO. “Laser-satellite communications are also less expensive, they use less electricity, and they’re more secure.”
“You can send much more information using light. Laser-satellite communications are also less expensive, they use less electricity, and they’re more secure”
In the future, it will be possible to transport data via satellites that can communicate with ground stations down on earth, but also with each other. It works both ways: there are benefits on earth, for instance being able to download video faster, and in the future the technology could also be used to improve communications during space missions to other planets.
A terabit per second
According to Ferrario, such light-based networks can transport about ten to a hundred times as much data, enabling transfer speeds of a terabit per second. Such speeds will be needed, in Ferrario’s view. “Today’s technology is very limited, and companies are realizing this more and more quickly.”
“According to Ferrario, such light-based networks can transport about ten to a hundred times as much data, enabling transfer speeds of a terabit per second”
It sounds great, but how do you build something like this in practice? Ferrario envisions a rather futuristic option: a network of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of small satellites, all in constant connection with one another.
A variety of companies and organizations are already working on such networks. Europe’s space agency ESA, for instance, has the EDRS, the European Data Relay System, which is being built in cooperation with Airbus Defence and Space. Companies like SpaceX and Facebook also have ambitious plans with regard to such space-based networks.
Optical systems in the Netherlands
The Netherlands has been a front runner in the design and construction of optical systems for many years. “We have a long history of high-end opto-mechatronics, and that’s important when you’re making optical communications equipment,” explains Ferrario. Many Dutch companies, such as VDL, DEMCOM Focal and Nedinsco, are active in this field. And there are several Dutch companies involved in space technology, like Airbus Defence and Space Netherlands, Hyperion Technologies and ISIS, who are good at building satellites. The best of both worlds!
There are more reasons why you might want to have such a network. Ferrario cites an important one: “Recent research by Bloomberg has shown that future self-driving cars will need to be able to move huge amounts of data.” Self-driving cars have to process numerous images and signals at high speed and then share this data with other cars.
The Internet of Things is also contributing to the growing need for large data transfers. The chances are that there are already several devices in your own home that are connected to the internet – an app-controlled thermostat, for instance.
Watch videos anywhere
But a laser-satellite network also benefits anyone using an ordinary smartphone. “We are making and sending more and more higher-definition videos,” says Ferrario. “In an ideal world you’d have a fast internet connection everywhere. You want to watch Netflix on the plane? No problem, if you give the plane a laser-satellite uplink.”
“In an ideal world you’d have a fast internet connection everywhere. You want to watch Netflix on the plane? No problem, if you give the plane a laser-satellite uplink”
In the future, a cheap satellite link will be a good alternative for a mobile telephone network – for example, if you are in an area with no reception. “And if you live somewhere more remote, then you’re more likely to make the change to a laser-satellite uplink,” Ferrario thinks.
There is another sector which is going to rely increasingly on laser-satellite communications in the future: the armed forces, which place a high value on secure communication channels. It is very difficult to eavesdrop on this form of communication: “You have to be able to physically intercept the signal,” explains Ferrario. Eavesdropping is much easier on radio frequencies. “Then it’s enough just to be in the area.”
From expensive to economically attractive
The problem with these applications is that they are very expensive to build. “Of course, it has to be a commercially viable proposition to use laser-satellite communications. For it to be really successful it will have to be cheap, and that’s not the case yet,” says Ferrario. This is what TNO is trying to bring about. “We’re designing terminals, for instance, so that companies can put them into a satellite or use them for other applications.”
In Ferrario’s opinion, laser-satellite communications will probably be around within a few years. “I give it another five years for the first consumer applications to appear, and ten years before we see them everywhere.”
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