Free-space optical communication

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An 8-beam free space optics laser link, rated for 1 Gbit/s at a distance of approximately 2 km. The receptor is the large disc in the middle, the transmitters the smaller ones. To the top and right corner a monocular for assisting the alignment of the two heads.

Free-space optical communication (FSO) is an optical communication technology that uses light propagating in free space to wirelessly transmit data for telecommunications or computer networking. "Free space" means air, outer space, vacuum, or something similar. This contrasts with using solids such as optical fiber cable or an optical transmission line. The technology is useful where the physical connections are impractical due to high costs or other considerations.


The planned OPALS experiment

Optical communications, in various forms, have been used for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks polished their shields to send signals during battle. In the modern era, semaphores and wireless solar telegraphs called heliographs were developed, using coded signals to communicate with their recipients.

In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter created the Photophone, at Bell's newly established Volta Laboratory in Washington, DC. Bell considered it his most important invention. The device allowed for the transmission of sound on a beam of light. On June 3, 1880, Bell conducted the world's first wireless telephone transmission between two buildings, some 213 meters (700 feet) apart.[1][2]

Its first practical use came in military communication systems many decades later, first for optical telegraphy. German colonial troops used Heliograph telegraphy transmitters during the 1904/05 Herero Genocide in German South-West Africa (today's Namibia) as did British, French, US or Ottoman signals.

WW I German Blinkgerät

During the trench warfare of World War I when wire communications were often cut, German signals used three types of optical Morse transmitters called Blinkgerät, the intermediate type for distances of up to 4 km (2.5 miles) at daylight and of up to 8 km (5 miles) at night, using red filters for undetected communications. Optical telephone communications were tested at the end of the war, but not introduced at troop level. In addition, special blinkgeräts were used for communication with airplanes, ballons, and tanks, with varying success.[citation needed]

A major technological step was to replace the Morse code by modulating optical waves in speech transmission. Carl Zeiss Jena developed the Lichtsprechgerät 80/80 (literal translation: optical speaking device) that the German army used in their World War II anti-aircraft defense units, or in bunkers at the Atlantic Wall.[3]

The invention of lasers in the 1960s revolutionized free space optics. Military organizations were particularly interested and boosted their development. However the technology lost market momentum when the installation of optical fiber networks for civilian uses was at its peak.

Many simple and inexpensive consumer remote controls use low-speed communication using infrared (IR) light. This is known as consumer IR technologies.

Usage and technologies[edit]

Space probe design concept using optical rather than radio communication

Free-space point-to-point optical links can be implemented using infrared laser light, although low-data-rate communication over short distances is possible using LEDs. Infrared Data Association (IrDA) technology is a very simple form of free-space optical communications. On the communicaitons side the FSO technology is considered as a part of the Optical Wireless Communications applications. Free-space optics are additionally used for communications between spacecraft. Maximum range for terrestrial links is of the order of 2 to 3 km (1.2 to 1.9 mi),[4] but the stability and quality of the link is highly dependent on atmospheric factors such as rain, fog, dust and heat. Amateur radio operators have achieved significantly farther distances using incoherent sources of light from high-intensity LEDs. One reported 173 miles (278 km) in 2007.[5] However, physical limitations of the equipment used limited bandwidths to about 4 kHz. The high sensitivities required of the detector to cover such distances made the internal capacitance of the photodiode used a dominant factor in the high-impedance amplifier which followed it, thus naturally forming a low-pass filter with a cut-off frequency in the 4 kHz range. From the other side use of lasers radiation source allows to reach very high data rates which are comparable to fiber communications. For example, in 2008 the Company MRV Communications has introduced the free-space optics (FSO)-based TereScope TS-10GE system with data rate 10 Gbit/s on a distance up to 350 m. Now this equipment is not presented on the FSO market. In 2013 the company MOSTCOM started the serially production of the new wireless communication system Artolink M1-10G with data rate 10 Gbit/s and the distance up to 2.5 km. In outer space, the communication range of free-space optical communication[6] is currently of the order of several thousand kilometers,[7] but has the potential to bridge interplanetary distances of millions of kilometers, using optical telescopes as beam expanders.[8] In January 2013, NASA used lasers to beam an image of the Mona Lisa to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter roughly 240,000 miles away. To compensate for atmospheric interference, error correction code algorithm similar to that used in CDs was implemented.[9] The distance records for optical communications involved detection and emission of laser light by space probes. A two-way distance record for communication was set by the Mercury laser altimeter instrument aboard the MESSENGER spacecraft. This infrared diode neodymium laser, designed as a laser altimeter for a Mercury orbit mission, was able to communicate across a distance of 15 million miles (24 million km), as the craft neared Earth on a fly-by in May, 2005. The previous record had been set with a one-way detection of laser light from Earth, by the Galileo probe, as two ground-based lasers were seen from 6 million km by the out-bound probe, in 1992.[10]

Secure free-space optical communications have been proposed using a laser N-slit interferometer where the laser signal takes the form of an interferometric pattern. Any attempt to intercept the signal causes the collapse of the interferometric pattern.[11] [12] This technique has been demonstrated to work over propagation distances of practical interest[13] and, in principle, it could be applied over large distances in space.[11]

Visible light communication[edit]

Researchers used a white LED-based space lighting system for indoor local area network (LAN) communications. These systems present advantages over traditional UHF RF-based systems from improved isolation between systems, the size and cost of receivers/transmitters, RF licensing laws and by combining space lighting and communication into the same system.[14] In 2003, a Visible Light Communication Consortium was formed in Japan.[15] A low-cost white LED (GaN-phosphor) which could be used for space lighting can typically be modulated up to 20 MHz.[16] Data rates of over 100 Mbit/s can be easily achieved using efficient modulation schemes and Siemens claimed to have achieved over 500 Mbit/s in 2010.[17] Research published in 2009 used a similar system for traffic control of automated vehicles with LED traffic lights.[18] In January 2009 a task force for visible light communication was formed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers working group for wireless personal area network standards known as IEEE 802.15.7.[19] A trial was announced in 2010 in St. Cloud, Minnesota.[20]

In September 2013, pureLiFi, the Edinburgh start-up working on Li-Fi, also demonstrated high speed point-to-point connectivity using any off-the-shelf LED light bulb. In previous work, high bandwidth specialist LEDs have been used to achieve the high data rates. The new system, the Li-1st, maximizes the available optical bandwidth for any LED device, thereby reducing the cost and improving the performance of deploying FSO systems.[21]


Two solar-powered satellites communicating optically in space via lasers

Typically scenarios for use are:

  • LAN-to-LAN connections on campuses at Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet speeds
  • LAN-to-LAN connections in a city, a metropolitan area network
  • To cross a public road or other barriers which the sender and receiver do not own
  • Speedy service delivery of high-bandwidth access to optical fiber networks
  • Converged Voice-Data-Connection
  • Temporary network installation (for events or other purposes)
  • Reestablish high-speed connection quickly (disaster recovery)
  • As an alternative or upgrade add-on to existing wireless technologies
    • Especially powerful in combination with auto aiming systems, this way you could power moving cars or you can power your laptop while you move or use auto-aiming nodes to create a network with other nodes.
  • As a safety add-on for important fiber connections (redundancy)
  • For communications between spacecraft, including elements of a satellite constellation
  • For inter- and intra -chip communication.[22]

The light beam can be very narrow, which makes FSO hard to intercept, improving security. In any case, it is comparatively easy to encrypt any data traveling across the FSO connection for additional security. FSO provides vastly improved electromagnetic interference (EMI) behavior compared to using microwaves.


RONJA is a free implementation of FSO using high-intensity LEDs.


For terrestrial applications, the principal limiting factors are:

These factors cause an attenuated receiver signal and lead to higher bit error ratio (BER). To overcome these issues, vendors found some solutions, like multi-beam or multi-path architectures, which use more than one sender and more than one receiver. Some state-of-the-art devices also have larger fade margin (extra power, reserved for rain, smog, fog). To keep an eye-safe environment, good FSO systems have a limited laser power density and support laser classes 1 or 1M. Atmospheric and fog attenuation, which are exponential in nature, limit practical range of FSO devices to several kilometres.

Flight test[edit]

  • An in-space laser communication experiment was one of four science instruments launched with the NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission on 7 Sept 2013. After a month-long transit to the Moon, and a 40-day spacecraft checkout, the laser comm experiments will occur over an approximately three-month period of time, in late 2013 to early 2014.[23]
  • Laser communication has also been demonstrated on aircraft and high altitude platforms. Applications can be found in the transmission of large data amounts directly from an aircraft (e.g. an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle UAV) to the ground or in the interconnection of stratospheric platforms to build up high-performance backbone networks.[25] A laser link from a jet platform Tornado was successfully demonstrated for the first time in November 2013. A laser terminal of the German company ViaLight Communications was used to transmit data at a rate of 1Gbit/s over a distance of 60 km and at a flight speed of 800 km/h. Additional challenges in this scenario were the fast flight maneuvers, strong vibrations, and the effects of atmospheric turbulence. The demonstration was financed by EADS Cassidian Germany and performed in cooperation with the German Aerospace Center DLR.[26][27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mary Kay Carson (2007). Alexander Graham Bell: Giving Voice To The World. Sterling Biographies. New York: Sterling Publishing. pp. 76–78. ISBN 978-1-4027-3230-0. 
  2. ^ Alexander Graham Bell (October 1880). "On the Production and Reproduction of Sound by Light". American Journal of Science, Third Series XX (118): 305–324.  also published as "Selenium and the Photophone" in Nature, September 1880.
  3. ^ "German, WWII, WW2, Lichtsprechgerät 80/80". LAUD Electronic Design AS. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  4. ^ Tom Garlington, Joel Babbitt and George Long (March 2005). "Analysis of Free Space Optics as a Transmission Technology". WP No. AMSEL-IE-TS-05001. U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command. p. 3. Archived from the original on June 13, 2007. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  5. ^ Clint Turner (October 3, 2007). "A 173-mile 2-way all-electronic optical contact". Modulated light web site. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  6. ^ Boroson, Don M. (2005), Optical Communications: A Compendium of Signal Formats, Receiver Architectures, Analysis Mathematics, and Performance Characteristics, retrieved 8 Jan 2013 
  7. ^ "Another world first for Artemis: a laser link with an aircraft". European Space Agency. December 18, 2006. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  8. ^ Steen Eiler Jørgensen (October 27, 2003). "Optisk kommunikation i deep space– Et feasibilitystudie i forbindelse med Bering-missionen". Dansk Rumforskningsinstitut. Retrieved June 28, 2011.  (Danish) Optical Communications in Deep Space, University of Copenhagen
  9. ^ Peckham, Matt (January 21, 2013). "NASA Beams Mona Lisa Image Into Space". TIME. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  10. ^ "Space probe breaks laser record: A spacecraft has sent a laser signal to Earth from 24 million km (15 million miles) away in interplanetary space". BBC News. January 6, 2006. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  11. ^ a b F. J. Duarte (May 2002). "Secure interferometric communications in free space". Optics Communications 205 (4): 313–319. doi:10.1016/S0030-4018(02)01384-6. 
  12. ^ F. J. Duarte (January 2005). "Secure interferometric communications in free space: enhanced sensitivity for propagation in the metre range". Journal of Optics A: Pure and Applied Optics 7 (1). doi:10.1088/1464-4258/7/1/011. 
  13. ^ F. J. Duarte, T. S. Taylor, A. M. Black, W. E. Davenport, and P. G. Varmette, N-slit interferometer for secure free-space optical communications: 527 m intra interferometric path length , J. Opt. 13, 035710 (2011).
  14. ^ Tanaka, Y.; Haruyama, S.; Nakagawa, M.; , "Wireless optical transmissions with white colored LED for wireless home links," Personal, Indoor and Mobile Radio Communications, 2000. PIMRC 2000. The 11th IEEE International Symposium on , vol.2, no., pp.1325-1329 vol.2, 2000
  15. ^ "Visible Light Communication Consortium". web site. Archived from the original on April 6, 2004.  (Japanese)
  16. ^ J. Grubor; S. Randel; K.-D. Langer; J. W. Walewski (December 15, 2008). "Broadband Information Broadcasting Using LED-Based Interior Lighting". Journal of Lightwave Technology 26 (24): 3883–3892. doi:10.1109/JLT.2008.928525. 
  17. ^ "500 Megabits/Second with White LED Light". news release (Siemens). January 18, 2010. Retrieved February 2, 2013. 
  18. ^ Lee, I.E.; Sim, M.L.; Kung, F.W.L.; , "Performance enhancement of outdoor visible-light communication system using selective combining receiver," Optoelectronics, IET , vol.3, no.1, pp.30-39, February 2009
  19. ^ "IEEE 802.15 WPAN Task Group 7 (TG7) Visible Light Communication". IEEE 802 local and metro area network standards committee. 2009. Retrieved June 28, 2011. 
  20. ^ Kari Petrie (November 19, 2010). "City first to sign on to new technology". St. Cloud Times. p. 1. 
  21. ^ "Pure LiFi transmits data using light". web site.  (English)
  22. ^ Jing Xue, Alok Garg, Berkehan Ciftcioglu, Jianyun Hu, Shang Wang, Ioannis Savidis, Manish Jain, Rebecca Berman, Peng Liu, Michael Huang, Hui Wu, Eby G. Friedman, Gary W. Wicks, Duncan Moore (June 2010). "An Intra-Chip Free-Space Optical Interconnect". the 37th International Symposium on Computer Architecture. Retrieved June 30, 2011. 
  23. ^ Dunn, Marcia (2013-09-07). "NASA launches robotic explorer to moon from Va.; trouble develops early in much-viewed flight". Star Tribune. Retrieved 2013-09-07. 
  24. ^ a b Messier, Doug (2013-10-23). "NASA Laser System Sets Record with Data Transmissions From Moon". Parabolic Arc. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  25. ^ J. Horwath, M. Knapek, B. Epple, M. Brechtelsbauer (July 21, 2006). "Broadband Backhaul Communication for Stratospheric Platforms: The Stratospheric Optical Payload Experiment (STROPEX)". SPIE. 
  26. ^ Optical data link successfully demonstrated between fighter plane and ground station, Dec. 2013
  27. ^ Extreme Test for the ViaLight Laser Communication Terminal MLT-20 – Optical Downlink from a Jet Aircraft at 800 km/h, Dec. 2013
  28. ^ Laserkommunikation zwischen Jet und Bodenstation

Further reading[edit]

  • David G. Aviv (2006). Laser Space Communications. ARTECH HOUSE. ISBN 1-59693-028-4. 

External links[edit]