Applying Photonics to Electronic Warfare Challenges

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November 8, 2016 | Originally published by Date Line: November 8 on

Photonics, the technology that helps drive today’s telecommunications systems, offers major advances in the area of signal transmission. Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are adapting optical techniques from the photonics telecom arena to enhance U.S. electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.

Optical approaches provide greatly increased frequency coverage and long distance low-loss transfer of analog signals when compared to traditional radio frequency (RF) systems, resulting in substantial performance improvements. Chip-scale integrated photonics also allows for the potential of extensive reductions in size, weight and power (SWaP) needs.

“U.S. warfighters may soon face adversary systems that use signals outside the traditional EW spectrum, which creates a need for broadband frequency responses beyond the capabilities of conventional RF and digital equipment,” said Chris Ward, a senior research engineer who leads GTRI”s EW photonics development program. “Photonic advances originating in the telecom world have given us the ability to provide EW, radar and other military systems with unique and advanced performance capabilities.”

Photonics technology uses photons – particles of light – to carry wideband signals used in communications, radar and other applications over optical fiber efficiently over large distances. Photonics-based systems transmit data with far less signal loss than conventional metallic conductors, and encounter little or no electromagnetic interference while propagating through fiber.

Moreover, optical technology can be described as “frequency agnostic” – meaning a fiber-optic cable can carry signals of virtually any RF frequency, given the constraints of the electrical-to-optical and optical-to-electrical conversion process. Electric, current-carrying cables of conventional RF and digital systems can only function within narrow bandwidths on the order of gigahertz (GHz). Most optical components operate with more than 1,000 times the bandwidth, on the order of terahertz (THz).