Internet of Military Things (IoMT) and Optical Communication (OC)

June 16, 2022

Optical Communication: A New Horizon for IoMT

The Air Force together with sister services will depend on Internet of Military Things (IoMT) to improve joint effectiveness and for 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 radiofrequencies 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. OC technology in fact has implications extending further beyond military communication and 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 still greater demand for data and communications connectivity across a range of warfighting platforms and units of force, yet existing connections are unable to meet user requirements for greater bandwidth. The radiofrequency (RF) spectrum currently used to transmit data and video is increasingly overcrowded and, in any case, inherent limitations with RF for data processing places 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 major 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-multi point 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 receiver terminals are able to receive more data at once 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 both clandestine interception and jamming measures, is able to 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 comes with underlying security concerns that will need continuous management whereas OC offers more secure wireless connection. This is possible because although optical connections emit stronger signals, the light beams projected are narrow and invisible so the likelihood of interception or interference is tremendously more challenging for hostile actors.

The use of multiple OC transmitters and receiver makes possible secure point-to multi-point topologies which, with the appropriate design-level application, can translate into higher bandwidth availability and service reliability. A main overhead node in geostationary earth orbit (GEO), for example, 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 make 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 both space vehicles and warfighting platforms or enable them to be made smaller, lighter and more easily deployable.

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